Health Department investigating 37 cases of possible vaping illness in PA

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is investigation 37 casing of vaping illness in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG -- A bill to increase the age to buy tobacco or vaping products to the age of 21 heads to Gov. Tom Wolf after both the state House and Senate approved it on Thursday.

Wolf plans to sign the bill, spokesman J.J. Abbott, said Thursday.

Twenty-one states, including all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states, except West Virginia, have already moved to the 21 age limit to buy tobacco products.

The move to increase the age to buy tobacco or vaping products passed in the House by a vote of 135-49. It passed the Senate by a vote of 44-5. The change would go into effect on July 1 if Wolf does sign the bill into law.

“As the availability and appeal of e-cigarettes has increased in particular, the rates of high-school age children vaping has increased 40 percent in just one year. Twenty-four percent of Pennsylvania high school teens use e-cigarettes, driving up overall youth smoking rates to over 32 percent,” said state Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County. “It’s clear that we have to act.”

Nearly 90 percent of smokers try their first cigarette before age 18, Scavello said. An increasing number of teens under 18 get tobacco products from their 18-year-old high school peers – who can legally purchase tobacco products. Increasing the minimum legal sales age to 21 would reduce underage access to tobacco through these legal-age peers.

Recent studies have found that “Tobacco-21” laws have been successful in reducing the amount of people aged 18-20 who smoke, he said.

Smokers have had to be 21 to buy tobacco products in New Jersey since 2017. Delaware went to the 21 minimum age for tobacco in July. New York, Maryland, and Ohio have all passed legislation to do the same, with those laws set to take effect in October.

The measure was amended to exempt members of the military, so those in the Armed Services will still be able to buy tobacco and vaping products if they are over the age of 18.

The American Lung Association opposed the exemption for military service members.

"Adding a military exemption weakens the legislation and places our military personnel under the age of 21 at continued risk for a lifetime of tobacco addiction and related health issues," said Sarah Lawver, Director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania.

Maryland, Texas and Virginia are among the states that have included military exemptions to their 21-age limits for tobacco products, according to the Associated Press.

Supporters, including state Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County, said that they wouldn’t support legislation that told young people who decided to risk their lives serving in the military that they couldn’t make the decision about whether to smoke.

Critics of the legislation said they don’t think the state should be telling people old enough to vote that they can’t make health decisions.

“They should not be smoking, but when they become adults, they should be able to make that choice,” said State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County.

Rothman said that there are other situations in which the state has deemed that young adults must wait until 21 to participate, including buying alcoholic beverages and engaging in most gambling activities.

The General Assembly also sent Wolf a companion bill that explicitly bars students from possessing or using vaping products on school property. Wolf plans to sign that legislation, as well, Abbott said.

CNHI PA State Reporter

CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com.

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