Indiana may toughen retailer penalties with 21 smoking age

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Indiana lawmakers are looking to toughen the penalties stores face for selling tobacco products to underaged customers as they raise the state’s minimum age for smoking and vaping from 18 to 21 to conform with the new federal law.

A proposal backed by anti-smoking advocates would also eliminate the possible fines against minors caught with tobacco or electronic cigarettes, saying those aren’t fair to youths who may have become addicted.

Proposals to raise Indiana’s smoking age have failed to advance among lawmakers for several years, but Congress’ decision last month to raise the legal age to 21 has made opposing it on a state level moot, and Republican leaders of the Indiana House and Senate are endorsing proposals with tougher penalties.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who announced his support for increasing the age limit before the congressional action, said the state law needs to be updated with additional penalties for selling to those younger than 21.

“It has been some time since we’ve beefed up those enforcement levels, since about 2008, so I think that’s long overdue as well,” Holcomb said.

The state law is partly enforced through spot checks by the Alcohol & Tobacco Commission’s state excise police. Stores can be fined or barred from selling tobacco or vaping liquids for repeat violations.

The House Public Health Committee voted 12-1 Wednesday to advance to the full House a bill that would boost the fine against a retailer for a first violation from a $200 maximum to a minimum of $500. The penalties would increase until a third violation within three years, which would carry a minimum $1,000 fine and a three-year loss of the store’s tobacco sales certificate. It also would prohibit new tobacco sales outlets from opening within 1,000 feet of a school.

A separate Senate bill would increase the fines against violators but doesn’t include the sales license revocations.

Health advocacy groups support a provision in the House bill that would eliminate possible tickets for underage tobacco possession, said Danielle Patterson, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association of Indiana. Tobacco possession should be treated differently than alcohol possession, partly because of longtime marketing of tobacco and vaping products targeting teens and young adults, she said.

“It is unfair to punish them when these companies have systematically gone after them,” Patterson said.

Indiana retail groups, however, questioned eliminating the penalties against minors and whether a three-year span for tracking store violations was fair, given high turnover rates among retail clerks.

The Tobacco Free Indiana coalition, which includes the Heart Association and numerous other groups, have also pushed for raising the state’s cigarette tax as a way of fighting its 21.8% smoking rate among adults that was the seventh highest in the country for 2017, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But those efforts have failed in recent years and legislative leaders said proposals for a cigarette tax increase and for imposing a state tax on vaping liquids won’t be taken up until 2021, when a new two-year state budget is written.

The tougher penalties on stores are the key part of the new legislation, Patterson said.

“If we can place the penalty on tobacco retailers and say ‘You have a duty here to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids,’ we feel that will help to decrease youth from becoming addicted to tobacco,” she said.

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