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Wisconsin bill would set age at 21 to buy tobacco, nicotine

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers wants to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and nicotine products, including vaping products, saying it's currently too easy for young high school students to get them and that the products are contributing to a public health crisis.

The group led by Republican state Sen. Howard Marklein introduced a bill that would bump the minimum age for buying products containing nicotine and tobacco from 18 to 21. The proposal also would prohibit anyone from selling or providing vaping paraphernalia, such as vape pens, to anyone under 21.

E-cigarettes have been gaining in popularity among Wisconsin high school students despite concerns about damage the chemicals in the devices may cause to the heart and lungs.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, e-cigarette use has increased 154% between 2014 and 2018. As of last year one out of every five students were using them, according to the department.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that 193 people in 22 states had contracted severe respiratory illnesses after vaping, including an Illinois patient who died. However, they cautioned that a direct link hadn't been made and that the cases were still being investigated.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already passes similar bills raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco, nicotine and vaping products to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

A host of organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Public Health Association, have come out in support of the Wisconsin bill, according to state Ethics Commission records. No groups have registered in opposition.

"The American Heart Association and other health groups applaud the bill, which would help prevent young people from starting down a path that leads to addiction, chronic diseases and premature death," the group said in a news release. "By delaying the tobacco sales age to 21, we can reduce the number of teenagers becoming lifelong smokers who will years of addiction and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer."

E-cigarette manufacturing giant Juul Labs issued a statement saying the company supports raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products, including vaping products, to 21.

"We cannot fulfill our goal to provide the world's one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in this country, if youth-use continues unabated," the statement said. "Tobacco 21 laws fight one of the largest contributors to this problem — sharing by legal-age peers — and they have been shown to dramatically reduce youth-use rates."

The bill's prospects are unclear. Aides for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn't immediately respond to emails inquiring about the measure's chances.

Republicans included language in the current state budget that imposes a 5-cent per milliliter sales tax on vaping fluid. That tax goes into effect Oct. 1. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had proposed a tax of 71% of the wholesale price for vaping fluid and devices, the same rate that the state applies to non-cigarette tobacco products, but Republicans rejected it in favor of the milliliter sales tax.

The tax is expected to generate about $5.5 million over two years, or about $23.7 million less than Evers' proposed plan would, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.


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