Gov. Rauner snuffs out bill to raise smoking age to 21

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Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. | AP file photo

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday stubbed out a bill that would have raised the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy cigarettes, vaping devices and tobacco products in Illinois.

In a letter explaining his veto to the General Assembly, Rauner called smoking “detrimental to the health of Illinoisans of all ages,” but argued the bill would only limit consumer choice without keeping tobacco out of youthful hands.

“Raising the age people can purchase tobacco products will push residents to buy tobacco products from non-licensed vendors or in neighboring states,” Rauner said. “Since no neighboring state has raised the age for purchasing tobacco products, local businesses and the State will see decreased revenue while public health impacts continue.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to reporters in March. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to reporters in March. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The bill’s lead sponsor, state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, lit up Rauner for nixing the legislation, accusing him of siding “with Big Tobacco instead of our children.

“The Illinois communities that stepped up and adopted Tobacco 21 on their own have seen a dramatic decrease in high school smoking rates,” Morrison said in a statement. “At a time of increased vaping use among teens, the governor had an opportunity to make a real investment in the health of our next generation. Instead, he favored political considerations over the health of our children, and in doing so failed us all.”

Chicago is among 340 municipalities across the country — along with 25 others in Illinois — that have already raised the tobacco age to 21. Five states have raised the age to 21, and Massachusetts will become the sixth when it implements the age hike in December.

The veto also drew swift condemnation from the American Cancer Society.

“Today could have been a historic day for Illinois,” spokeswoman Shana Crews said. “Unfortunately, Governor Rauner chose to side with the tobacco industry and halt Illinois’ public health progress.”

The American Heart Association issued a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” in Rauner’s veto, accusing him of putting “the health of our children at risk.

“Smoking kills more than 18,000 adults in Illinois annually. Research shows that most smokers start young – 95 percent of adult smokers began before the age of 21,” the group said. “This bill would have saved lives.”

Dozens of tobacco and vape shops lobbied against the bill, as did the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

According to the state Department of Revenue, the bill would have cost the state $41 million to $48 million per year in lost cigarette and sales tax receipts.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, was among the Republicans who opposed the bill before it passed the Senate in April.

“It is one of those times where we need to step back and say let people make their choices,” McCarter said, noting that 18-year-olds who can sign up for the military, and “possibly give your life for your country,” shouldn’t have rights taken away.

Gathering votes to override the veto could prove daunting. The bill passed the Senate 35-20 and the House 61-49.

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