Oregon Senate approves raising legal tobacco age to 21

(AP File Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Oregon is on track to potentially become the third state in the nation to raise its tobacco age minimum to 21 following Thursday's vote by Senate lawmakers.

Senate Bill 754 cleared the chamber in a 19-8 vote and now heads to the House. The measure would raise the legal age in Oregon for possessing and buying tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21 beginning next year, following the leads of Hawaii in 2015 and California in 2016.

READ MORE: Bill looks to raise Oregon's smoking age to 21

State budget officials say the Oregon proposal would drop tax revenues by an estimated $1.76 million — less than 2 percent of total tobacco revenues— in the upcoming 2017-19 budget, which has a $1.6 billion projected shortfall. Total tobacco revenues account for approximately $134 million of the total $19.6 billion expected gross revenue to the state's general fund for the upcoming biennium.

Any potential revenue losses, however, could be recovered through other proposals currently being considered in Salem to raise the state's tax rates on tobacco products. The Oregon Health Authority also says the measure could take a bite out of the $2.5 billion in tobacco-related medical costs that burden taxpayers every year.

But the bipartisan proposal was criticized by some Senate Republicans as discriminating against young adults who are otherwise legally old enough to vote, join the military, own a house, drive a car and pay taxes.

"Are we a nanny state?" Republican Sen. Alan Olsen asked his colleagues during the debate. "Or do we believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?"

Senate Republican Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli characterized it as a "lack of trust" in young adults to make their own decisions and as a "great opportunity for young people to enter the thriving black market of bootleg cigarettes."

Under SB754, prohibited sales to minors under 21 would include vaporizers, electronic and traditional cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, among others. There would be no crime penalties for persons under 21 caught in possession; retail shop owners, managers and sales clerks would be on the hook for anywhere between $50 to $1,000 in civil, rather than criminal, fines should they be caught selling to those underage.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, one of the bill's Democratic sponsors, said she understands critics' concerns, but noted that voters and military members under 21, for instance, also can't legally have a beer or, in places like Oregon, buy recreational marijuana.

"Nicotine and tobacco are one of the only substances that, when used as directed, will almost guarantee to kill you," said Steiner Hayward, who has lost several family members, including her father, to tobacco-related deaths. "There is a safe level of soda pop, there is a safe level of fast food. There is no safe level of tobacco."

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