Kansas Legislature approves bill elevating to 21 minimum age to buy tobacco products
TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature put an exclamation point on opposition to tobacco consumption by young adults Tuesday by sending to Gov. Laura Kelly a bill raising the minimum age for buying, possessing or consuming tobacco products in the state from 18 to 21.
The legislation was approved by the Kansas Senate on a vote of 28-11, which followed passage of the bill 68-53 by the Kansas House in early March. If signed into law, Kansas could gain $2.1 million in federal funding for tobacco enforcement and lose an estimated $7.6 million in state sales tax and cigarette stamp revenue.
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said previous attempts to achieve compliance in Kansas with a federal law hoisting the age to 21 failed to survive the legislative process at the Capitol. He said House Bill 2269 could be different.
“It was packaged in several bills over the last couple of years that had various regulations and it just never passed out,” Thompson said.
Legislators, health organization lobbyists and medical professionals urged the Legislature to bring Kansas into line with the measure signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2019. More than 30 states have passed laws setting the age at 21, but neither Kansas nor Missouri has done so.
Roy Jensen, director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, said nearly all smokers started as children or young adults. During adolescent years, he said, experimentation with cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products could accelerate into a daily habit.
“The adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a powerful addictive agent like nicotine,” he said. “Younger teens also benefit from raising the nicotine/tobacco age requirement. About 90% of those who provide cigarettes to kids under 18 are themselves under 21. As a result, raising the tobacco sales age to 21 has been shown to reduce high school smoking by over 50%.”
Age of adulthood
Opposition in the state House and Senate reflected a belief individuals 18 years of age were old enough to make decisions about use of tobacco products that research decades ago linked to cancer and other medical problems.
Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said he understood health benefits of the legislation but found it difficult to accept elevating the minimum age for tobacco to 21 when younger individuals were viewed as adults in so many ways.
“I think about the fact we will throw kids in jail at 15 sometimes and charge them as adults,” Pittman said. “We’ll send our soldiers overseas to fight our wars for us at 18.”
Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, voted against the tobacco bill in the House while objecting to the “serious plague on our society,” the tobacco industry’s targeting of children with marketing and tobacco’s contribution to premature death across the United States.
“I am not in favor of delaying adulthood,” Humphries said. “Today, I choose to treat 18-year-olds and above as adults. Adults who can vote and join the military. Adults who I strongly encourage not to use tobacco but who may make that choice.”
Tax shock absorber
A bipartisan majority in the Kansas Senate rejected a bill crafted to set aside $270 million to help city, county and other local units of government cope with potential future action by the Legislature to end both the state and local sales tax on grocery food purchases. The vote in the GOP-dominated chamber was 17-23.
The state’s former rate of 6.5% sales tax on food would be phased out over three years under a bill signed last year by the Democratic governor. The Senate bill anticipated the Legislature would adopt a measure later in the session to promptly end the food sales tax at all levels of government, which would reduce tax revenue to cities, counties and the state by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Under Senate Bill 309, the state would establish a $220 million fund July 1 known as the Fixing Instant Revenue Shock for Taxpayers Fund. It would enable appropriations in July 2024 to cities, counties and other local taxing districts for documented loss of sales tax revenue due to action by the Legislature.
Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said he assumed there would be enough in that fund to replace what was lost by cities, counties and others, but the bill would only make that cash available for one year. To qualify for state replacement dollars, according to the bill, the local unit of government would have to be compliant with a state law designed to discourage cities and counties from raising property tax rates.
The bill also would set aside $50 million in the Local Extraordinary Needs Fund for the purpose of making grants to cities and counties for capital projects that might have been financed through sales tax revenue lost due to legislation action. Grant awards would be determined by a 10-person committee of House and Senate members. The maximum grant under the initiative would be $2 million.
“There is literally no scenario in which this bill is not good or better for local governments,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover.
Not all on board
Opponents of the “hold harmless” sales tax bill included the Kansas Association of Counties, Kansas County Commissioners Association, Sedgwick County Commission and the cities of Olathe, Garden City and Overland Park.
“It’s going to really, really hurt the locals,” said Sen. Ron Ryckman Sr., R-Meade. “What’s going to happen next year? Or the next year? Or the next year?”
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, said he was concerned the Senate bill stripped away sales tax revenue the voters of Olathe agreed to dedicate to community priorities. He suspected Olathe would end up losing sales tax revenue under the scheme and could be forced to turn to property tax hikes to meet financial obligations.
“Now we’re going to mess with the system that works for locals to operate their cash flow,” Olson said. “I think we’re going down the wrong path here.”