AUSTIN, Texas (Nexstar) — Texas would join seven other states in raising the tobacco age to 21 if legislators act this session.
The Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs heard testimony Monday over Senate Bill 21, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. The bill would stop the sale of tobacco to Texans under 21 and would apply to e-cigarettes and related products. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has listed this bill as one of his 30 priority bills for this legislative session.
“National data shows that about 95 percent — 95 percent — of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21,” Huffman said. “Even more astounding is that three-quarters of adult smokers try their first cigarette before the age of 18.”
Samantha Boy, who is with the organization Parents Against Vaping, told lawmakers her 16-year-old daughter became addicted to drugs after exposure to vaping at the age of 13.
“This became a severe addiction for my daughter,” Boy said.
Boy told lawmakers her daughter is in her sixth treatment facility and while she was vaping, she would constantly sneeze and cough up blood to the point of becoming iron deficient.
“When she couldn’t vape, she was irritable, depressed and isolated,” she said. “She would come into my room in the middle of the night and beg for a nicotine patch. Do you know a 15-year-old that comes into your room at night begging for a nicotine patch? It’s unheard of, but it’s happening.”
Texas 21, a coalition of health experts and organizations, had several representatives testify as well.
“Because I am 18 years old, I can go out and I can legally buy tobacco and e-cigarettes,” Kellen Kruk, a high school senior, said. “I can use the products and show them off on my Snapchat and Instagram, which influences the people who look up to me. What’s even worse is as an 18-year-old, I can buy the product and share them with my peers, even if it illegal.”
However, some say simply raising the age won’t fix the problem.
“I don’t feel it’s effective,” Charlotte Owen said. “We’ve had 18 and over for as long as I’ve been an adult and it didn’t work for me and it’s not working for a lot of other kids. Just changing the age from 18 to 21 on a bill somewhere, how is that going to impact anything?”
Owen said the issue lies in the nicotine levels inside the e-cigarette pods. She said her shop uses open-system e-cigarettes and a lower-level nicotine liquid.
“In vape shops, we step down nicotine levels,” she said. “That’s what we’re there for – it’s to step people down, to get them off of everything if we can, zero if we can, wherever we can get them. I don’t feel this bill would do much.”
Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, has filed a companion bill which is currently pending in the House Public Health Committee.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth tobacco use increased during the 2017-18 period. About 4.9 million middle and high school students had used some type of tobacco within the last month during 2018, which increased from 3.6 million in 2017. Health experts from the CDC attributed the increase to a rise in e-cigarette use, as well as “erased past progress in reducing youth tobacco use.” The CDC says several ways to curb youth tobacco use include raising the minimum age of sale of tobacco products to 21 years and prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products.
This effort to raise the age now also has the backing of Altria, one of the world’s largest marketers and producers of tobacco products.
“We believe that raising the minimum age to 21 to purchase tobacco products is the most effective action to further reduce underage tobacco use and reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates,” Altria’s website says. “And we believe this action will help preserve the harm reduction opportunity that these types of products present to adult smokers.”
JUUL Labs, an e-cigarette company that brands itself as an alternative to smoking, said in a statement it is committed to preventing youth access of its products and looks forward to working with state, federal and local policymakers to raise the minimum legal age to 21.
“We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” a JUUL Labs spokesperson emailed in a statement. “Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vaping products like JUUL, to 21 in Texas.”
The CDC has issued information about how JUUL e-cigarettes have high levels of nicotine and how a single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. However, the spokesperson JUUL Labs noted the company now has two different strengths for their pods – one with five percent nicotine and another with three percent. The three percent pod is a 40 percent reduction from the company’s five percent pod, according to JUUL Labs’ website.
Senate Bill 1332 is also another piece of legislation that aims to crack down on e-cigarette sales to minors. The legislation would allow the state to revoke retail licenses from businesses that knowingly sell to minors, according to State Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas.