TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The minimum age for Floridians to possess tobacco and vaping products that deliver nicotine would rise from 18 to 21 under legislation a state House committee readied Tuesday for a floor vote.
The measure that cleared the House Appropriations Committee would also establish 21 as the minimum age for smokable forms of medical marijuana. Members of the military would be exempt from all such age restrictions.
Sponsors say the bill would improve public health and reduce the costs that government programs such as Medicaid incur for treating cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses. They say the health effects of vaping are largely unknown and that the increasingly popular practice could become a gateway to tobacco for young people.
"Almost all adult smokers started smoking when they were kids," said Democratic Rep. Nicholas Duran of Miami, one of the main sponsors. "This bill substantially decreases their access by cutting off their source."
A 2015 study sanctioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that raising the age for tobacco use from 18 to 21 nationally would result in 223,000 fewer early deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost, according to a legislative staff analysis.
"Raising the age to use tobacco is the deciding factor. We know what it does," said Rep. Joe Geller, a Dania Beach Democrat. "That goal is so important."
GOP Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay added that in Florida alone the annual cost to taxpayers of treating smoking-related illnesses through the Medicaid program is close to $4 billion.
"The debate is not just about freedom. What crosses the line for me is when I'm asked to pay for other people's liberty," Fine said.
The vaping industry and some health groups object to being included with tobacco in the age limitation, arguing that e-cigarettes and similar products can help people quit or avoid smoking tobacco altogether.
"Vapor is not a tobacco product. We sell a product to help people quit smoking, not to continue smoking," said Michael Miller, owner of a vape shop in Jacksonville.
The FDA, however, also reported that in 2018, more than 4.9 million middle and high school students were using e-cigarettes and that one in four high school seniors were using them.
Still, Rep. Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican, said she is concerned about too much government overreach.
"I think this bill attempts to dump government on the people. The libertarian in me says, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, let's tap the breaks,'" Raschein said.
But the legislation was approved with only two no votes and now heads to the House floor. A companion bill is moving in the Senate.
This story has been edited to correct Rep. Duran's party affiliation.