LECLAIRE, Iowa -- Iowa lawmakers are mulling a bill to raise the minimum age for buying and using tobacco products to 21, from 18, arguing that it is a much-needed first step to steer tobacco products away from schools.
"Eleven states across the nation have already started with legislation to bring the age up to 21. Iowa is part of that initiative," said Iowa State Senator Chris Cournoyer.
"If you have kids that are 18 in high school, that are buying it to for their friends, this is where a lot of this starts," she said.
Cournoyer served as a board member on the Pleasant Valley school board for six years before she was elected to represent the state's 49th district, covering Clinton and parts of Scott Counties. She said tobacco products aside, vaping products and e-cigarettes too have become a huge issue in schools.
"In the last six years, our school resource officers would bring all these products to school board meetings to show us, they are in the schools, they're happening in the classrooms, they're happening in bathrooms or outside. I think the kids think it’s not smoking. It doesn’t produce the smell, it seems natural. But the quantity of nicotine in these products are pretty significant," she said.
"We just wanna make sure that it’s not in our high school, and this is our first step in addressing that," she said.
The bill would cover vapor products and e-cigarettes. But opposition to the proposal has emerged from an unlikely source: the American Cancer Society.
"When you look at raising the age to 21, it sounds really good, but language matters," Danielle Oswald-Thole, the ACS's Iowa government relations director, said.
The Iowa bill, as it is currently written, is problematic because it focuses on the small time offender instead of big business, Oswald-Thole said.
"Penalizing youth is not proven to be effective in actually reducing tobacco use," she said, adding that punishing high school students who smoke takes money and focus away from addressing larger, more impactful efforts to address tobacco use among youth.
"We’re really asking that penalties on retailers and sellers be the focus, because that’s what we know really stops youth from using these tobacco products."
Oswald-Thole cited other reasons why the ACS did not support the current bill: Language in it defines vape products and e-cigarettes differently from tobacco products.
"This is language put into code years ago from tobacco industry," she said, explaining that the distinction allows for less stringent regulations and taxes on the non-traditional products.
Oswald-Thole says the tobacco industry wants to focus on T-21 laws to take the focus away from effecting real change.
"If we are all focused on these T-21 laws, we are not focusing on the other pieces of tobacco control and prevention which we know can be effective," she said.
She said she hopes to work with lawmakers like Cournoyer to strengthen the bill, as well as lobby for an appropriation to fund the state's tobacco prevention and control program.
"In Iowa we currently fund [the program] at $4 million, that's a cut from $12.8 million in 2008. And the Center for Disease Control recommends we should be over $30 million. We woefully underfunded our tobacco prevention and control program," she said.
Lawmakers like Cournoyer know the bill has got a long way to go, having just emerged from a three-member Senate subcommittee.
"It takes time to get information from the various stakeholder groups and really flush out all the consequences, unintended or otherwise to make sure we get good policy in place," Cournoyer said, adding that she looked forward to working with groups like the American Cancer Society.
Oswald-Thole agreed there was room to work together. "We don’t currently support the bill, but we wanna get to a part where we can support it."