'Tobacco 21' vote now awaits governor's decision

SPRINGFIELD - A four-year effort by lawmakers and advocates to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in Illinois appears nearly complete now that legislation approved by both chambers heads to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk.

The Senate passed the measure Thursday by a mostly party-line vote, 39-16.

Pritzker has not said definitively whether he will sign "Tobacco 21," which would change the age to buy products containing nicotine - including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes and chewing tobacco, among others - from 18 to 21.

In an emailed statement, his spokeswoman said Pritzker "looks forward to reviewing the legislation."

But supporters of the initiative are optimistic the Democratic governor will sign the bill into law. Former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a similar measure last year.

"Thankfully, we've got a new governor and a new chance to right past wrongs and make Illinois a healthier state," Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat and supporter of the legislation, said in a news release.

Illinois would be the eighth state in the nation, and the first in the Midwest, to have such a law on the books.

The state House passed the measure Tuesday in a 82-31 vote.

Rep. Camille Lilly, a Democrat from Chicago, sponsored the bill in the House.

"Opponents made the same two arguments they have in committee hearings and in the House. First, that if 18 is old enough to get married, vote in a political election, open a bank account and join the military, it should be old enough to purchase and smoke a cigarette," Lilly said.

"I believe this is one of those bills that saves lives," she added.

Lilly secured more Republican support this week than in the previous legislation session, including that of GOP Leader Jim Durkin from Western Springs. During debate Tuesday, he said that while he has "been fighting it for most of my career," he was switching his stance in part because of research into the "epidemic" of smoking.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat and sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, pointed out the Department of Defense is going tobacco-free by 2020 and a national group of retired senior officers, called Mission: Readiness, supports the "Tobacco 21" bill out of concern about the readiness of new recruits.

"I think this speaks volumes about what the military would, in fact, want for its members," Morrison said.

Detractors also take issue with removing language from the current law enacting penalties for minors caught with tobacco products. Minors now risk the prospect of taking a "smoker's education or youth diversion program" with their parents as well as the possibility of fines or community service.

"To say that these kids who are getting their cigarettes from other kids are now going to be allowed to do that freely and without any punishment is a real problem," Republican Sen. Steve McClure of Springfield said during debate.

Kathy Drea, the American Lung Association's senior director for advocacy, said there is "absolutely no research" demonstrating penalties reduce smoking rates among teenagers.

"It's as simple as that," she said.

The legislation is House Bill 345.

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