A Wisconsin lawmaker proposes increasing the minimum age to 21 years old for the purchase of cigarettes and nicotine, tobacco and vaping products.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said he believes that restricting sales will help curb an alarming rise in electronic cigarette use among Wisconsin minors.

“Given the health concerns that have been raised recently in this state and the concerns that I’ve heard from educators and parents, I think the time is right,” he said.

Even as the number of Wisconsin high school students who smoke conventional cigarettes declined in recent years, the state has seen a significant rise in e-cigarette use — from about 8% in 2014 to 20% in 2018, according to the Youth Tobacco Survey.

The devices generally are used to deliver nicotine through an aerosol. Exposure to nicotine during adolescence can impact attention, learning and memory, according to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

Other chemicals found in the aerosol also pose potential harms. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is investigating 11 cases of teenagers and young adults and 12 cases among older adults with severe lung disease linked to recent vaping.

The bill would not exempt current 18-, 19- or 20-year-olds from the restriction and does not make exemptions for active military service members.

The restrictions also would apply to those who sell products to or purchase products on behalf of someone younger than 21.

The bill is being circulated for co-sponsors through Wednesday, Aug. 14.

State Reps. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Marklein said he is optimistic the bill will garner support and that it even received a thumbs up from tobacco industry manufacturers.

A spokesman from the National Association of Tobacco Outlets — a trade association that helps members respond to tobacco-related legislation at local, state and federal levels — could not be reached for comment.

REDUCING ACCESS

Eighteen states, including Illinois, have adopted similar provisions. Iowa Code permits the purchase of tobacco at age 18 and preempts local governments from passing youth-access regulations.

A National Academy of Medicine report recommended increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and projected that raising the minimum age to 21 years would decrease by 12% the prevalence of tobacco use among today’s teenagers by the time they reach adulthood.

The report noted that the majority of underage users rely on social networks to acquire tobacco products and that raising the age to purchase to 21 would decrease the likelihood that underage youth would know someone who could provide access.

“The longer you can delay someone from smoking, the less likely they will and the less damage it will do to them,” said Grant County (Wis.) Health Department Director Jeffery Kindrai.

INCOMPLETE PLAN?

Jeanne Ayers, state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said the measure by itself will not be enough to stem e-cigarette use.

“We’re in an incrementalist approach toward trying to protect our kids from nicotine,” she said. “I can’t believe that the adults in the state and our policymakers don’t just say, ‘Let’s do all the same things we did for cigarettes right now.”

Ayers said raising the age to purchase is incomplete without instituting a licensing system for electronic cigarette retailers in Wisconsin, increasing the tax on vaping products to that of cigarettes and restricting flavors in e-cigarette products.

About 90% of Wisconsin high school students reported that they would not try tobacco products that are not flavored, but e-cigarette products are often marketed with “kid-friendly” flavorings, she noted.

Marklein said he believes the state needs to approach the issue “one step at a time” before considering other measures, such as licensing.

“If this (bill) doesn’t pass, there is no need to worry about licensing,” he said.

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