Kansas legislators consider raising minimum age for tobacco to 21

By: - February 22, 2021 12:01 pm

Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, is reinitiating an ongoing effort to raise the minimum age for tobacco use and purchase to 21. His proposed bill would bring Kansas in line with federal law. (Jan. 26, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas bill heard Monday seeks to bring the state in line with federal regulations regarding minimum age for cigarettes and tobacco use.

In late 2019, the federal “Tobacco 21” bill was signed into law, raising the federal minimum age for the sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 years. The Kansas measure would bring the state even with nationwide regulation for the minimum age to purchase or possess cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and tobacco products.

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and physician, sponsored the bill to curb the “catastrophic downstream health effects” teenage tobacco and cigarette use can have throughout one’s lifetime.

“Both of my parents died of tobacco-related disease in their mid-70s. Both began smoking as teenagers. Both should have lived another 10 years,” Eplee said. “This bill finishes the job, in my mind, to be sure the state of Kansas can continue to promote healthy lifestyles and no legal tobacco activity until 21.”

This “conformity bill” is Eplee’s third attempt at a bill seeking to limit tobacco use before the age of 21, although language regarding flavor, vapes and menthol cigarettes has been dropped this year. A similar bill died in the House last year after passing through the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs.

According to testimony provided by Kristie Clark, president of the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 95% of adults who smoke begin smoking before they turn 21. Tobacco use is also the leading cause of preventable death in the state, killing more than 4,400 Kansas each year.

Clark said the younger someone begins using nicotine, the harder it is to quit. As children and teen’s brains are developing, they are more susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of these substances, she said.

“Even adults who are successful with cessation often must spend much time and money and endure half a dozen attempts or more to do so — and those are the few that are fortunate enough to triumph over this deadly addiction,” Clark said. “My hope is for future generations of Kansans not to face these difficulties.”

Kristie Clark, president of the Kansas Chapter American Academy of Pediatrics, said tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death in the state. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube/Kansas Reflector)

Pediatricians would ideally like to see the flavor ban included in this bill, Clark said. She said the flavor masks the bitter taste of these highly addictive substances, making it easier to begin or continue misuse.

Estimates from the Kansas Department of Revenue suggest passage of the bill would decrease state revenues by $7.4 million in 2022. KDOR also estimated the bill would decrease local sales tax revenue from lower cigarette sales.

The measure not only brings Kansas even with federal regulation but would create uniformity across the state. Several cities and counties in Kansas have already taken action to increase the age of purchase to 21 years of age, said Tom Palace, executive director of Fuel True, a statewide trade association.

An additional provision to the bill would amend an education statute to ensure that all regulated tobacco products are prohibited in public school buildings.

“While most Kansas school districts have taken action to ban the use of these devices in schools, the ability to regulate the general population during school-sponsored events or activities is more complicated because it is not prohibited in current statute,” said Leah Fliter, of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

There were no opponents to the bill, although Sara Prem, president of the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition, did voice concerns with some of the provisions in the bill. While Prem acknowledged the importance of raising the age to 21, she said penalties the bill retains on youths for purchase, use, and possession of these products are not an effective tobacco control strategy.

“Penalties for youth may divert attention from more effective tobacco control strategies and it relieves the tobacco industry of responsibility for its marketing practices and retailer’s irresponsible sale to minors,” Prem said. “Further, these laws have been found to disproportionately impact minorities, specifically African Americans and Hispanic youth.”

The committee may review and take final action on the bill Thursday or Friday.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.