Nebraska teenagers would be prohibited from buying and smoking tobacco products under legislation introduced by Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston.According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, tobacco use causes more than 6 million deaths annually, making it the leading cause of preventable death worldwide.
Riepe said 95 percent of adult smokers start smoking before age 21, and the purpose of LB 73 is to delay the age at which people start smoking.
The bill would also increase the age gap between young teens and those who can legally purchase tobacco, Riepe said, which would help to keep tobacco products out of high schools.
Seven proponents testified in favor of the proposed bill at a Feb. 13 General Affairs Committee hearing, including representatives from the American Lung Association as well as an eighth grade student at Lincoln's Scott Middle School who spoke to the importance of preventing young teens access to tobacco products.
Five opponents spoke against the bill, including Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports the use of vapor products and electronic cigarettes to help smokers quit.
Conley defended vapor products because he said they helped him quit smoking.
He also expressed concern for current 18-20-year-old Nebraska smokers who could be prosecuted if the smoking age were raised to 21.
Some opponents, including Kathy Siefken of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said many underage smokers get tobacco products from social sources -- not retailers -- and raising the legal smoking age to 21 wouldn't reduce underage access.
Two testified neutrally on the bill, including Nick Faustman of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.
Faustman noted two proposed improvements to LB 73, the first of which would require electronic cigarette retailers be licensed in the same way other tobacco retailers are. Faustman also suggested evidence-based smoking cessation services as a more effective way to help young smokers quit.
"Laws that punish young people for the purchase, use or possession of these tobacco products have not been proven effective in preventing rising youth tobacco use," he said.