SALEM — The Oregon Senate has passed a bill to raise the smoking age to 21. If the House concurs, Oregon would become the third state in the nation to prohibit the sale of tobacco to people younger than 21.
"The is pure and simple a public health bill," said the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton.
The bill passed 18-to-9, with all Democrats and two Republicans, Sens. Jackie Winters of Salem, and Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena, voting in favor. Winters and Democrat swing vote Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose changed their votes. A Republican, Rep. Rich Vial of Scholls, co-sponsored with Steiner-Hayward. Both lawmakers have said they lost loved ones to tobacco-related diseases.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Canby, argued the bill looked like the work of a "nanny state."
"I appall smoking," Olson said. But the senator said he felt people have the right to make that choice for themselves.
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said people who are old enough to serve in the military ought to be able to decide whether they want to smoke. He said the law change would create a new illicit market for people between the ages of 19 and 21.
Steiner Hayward, who is a family physician, retorted that states have prohibited people younger than 21 from drinking alcohol and that alcohol is less addictive than tobacco.
Recent research, including some from the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, shows that brains under age 26 are more susceptible to addiction.
The legislation would impose first-time civil penalties of $50 for clerks and $500 for managers who sell to minors.
"We made a conscious decision not have criminal penalties because we know that tobacco companies tend to target low-income communities who can least afford it," Steiner Hayward said.
Taking 18- to 20-year-olds out of the legal market would result in an estimated loss in tobacco tax revenue of $1.6 million every two years, according to a projection by the Legislative Revenue Office.
An increase in the tobacco tax proposed by Gov. Kate Brown could offset some that loss.
In 2015, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to raise the smoking age to 21. California followed suit last year. An additional 210 cities and counties, including Lane County, New York City and Boston, have similar laws. Lane County commissioners voted 3-to-2 March 14 to raise that county's smoking age to 21, becoming the first local jurisdiction in Oregon to do so.