Pa. House, Senate approve bill upping the tobacco purchase age to 21 for most Pa. residents

A bill that raises the Pennsylvania's minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 includes e-cigarettes, or vapes, that are increasingly popularity among school children. Image source: "Medix CBD Vape Oil" by oron3 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Legislation requiring most younger Pennsylvanians to wait three additional years before they can legally buy tobacco products is on its way to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, where it’s expected to get his signature.

In a pair of votes Thursday, the state House and Senate gave final approval to legislation sponsored by Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, that raises the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products — including e-cigarettes —  in Pennsylvania from 18 to 21.

The House voted 135-49 to approve the bill, which had been previously approved by the Senate with just six ‘no’ votes. However, the House inserted language waiving that requirement for active-duty military members, who will still be allowed to purchase  cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products when they turn 18.

Lawmakers who supported the amendment argued that military members shouldn’t face restrictions on tobacco products if they can elect to serve in the armed forces. 

“If we’re asking them to go to war and give their life, we ought to give them the ability to do what they want at [age] 18,” Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, said.

That act prompted a return trip to the Senate, which voted 44-5 to approve the bill with the military exemption. The chamber did so over the objections of the American Lung Association, which said the amended language “[undercut] the law’s effectiveness.” 

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, a retired Army colonel, said the amendment would standardize state laws for Pennsylvania service people who live on military bases, where they’re subject to federal law that allows them to buy tobacco at age 18.

But Mastriano voted nonetheless voted against the bill on principle, calling it “overreach and over-regulation.” 

Wolf has indicated he’ll sign the amended legislation, spokesman J.J. Abbott said Thursday.

If Wolf does sign the bill,  Pennsylvania will join 18 other states that have raised the legal age to purchase tobacco. It comes as schools across the country combat a scourge of e-cigarette use by students. 

Educators and public health advocates who support the bill say that schools have been unable to eradicate e-cigarette use among students, even as they implement new surveillance methods and harsher punishments to deter their use among students. 

They argue that raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products will make it more difficult for students aged 18 and over to distribute e-cigarettes to their classmates. 

It could also save lives: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified more than 2,000 cases of lung illness connected with vaping; 15 percent of them were in children under the age of 18. 

“[If] we can limit young peoples’ ability to vape, we’re doing the right thing,” Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said. 

The bill still generated spirited debate on the House floor Wednesday, as members from both parties said the bill was infantilizing and inconsistent with other policies for legal adults in Pennsylvania.

“What we’re doing today… is not about cigarettes or vaping,” Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, said. “It’s about taking rights away from legal adults.”

Republican lawmakers with libertarian leanings also opposed the bill, noting that 18-year olds are considered legal adults in Pennsylvania with the right to legally enter contracts.

They also rejected the exemption for military members, with Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, saying it would create “two classes of citizens.”

“I cannot think of another statute in Pennsylvania which considers any activity a crime for everybody except those who choose, voluntarily, a certain occupation,” Diamond said. “This is a dangerous precedent.” 

A Senate analysis estimated the state would lose $12 million in sales tax revenue by increasing the legal purchasing age.