AUGUSTA — A bill that raises Maine’s legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 is on its way to Republican Gov. Paul LePage for consideration.

The bill, which includes electronic smoking devices and is backed by a broad bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, looks to decrease the number of young people picking up cigarettes or other tobacco products that can lead to lifelong health problems. Supporters say the savings in tobacco-related health costs will more than offset any loss of tax revenue.

Maine’s teenage smoking rate is 11 percent, which is among the highest in the nation and three points above the national teen smoking rate of 8 percent, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

The bill received final legislative action Thursday after clearing the Maine Senate on a vote of 31-4 and the House of Representatives on a vote of 113-34 in June.

LePage’s communication director, Peter Steele, gave no indication whether LePage would veto the bill or not.

“The governor has 10 days from when a bill hits his desk to sign it, veto it or let it go into law without a signature,” Steele wrote in an email. “That’s all we got for now.”

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network praised the Legislature for the bill, which would make Maine only the fifth state in the nation to set the legal age for tobacco at 21.

Hawaii and California have laws on the books, Oregon’s Legislature recently passed a similar law and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Friday that raises that state’s legal age to buy tobacco to 21, according to Lance Boucher, the director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Maine and New Hampshire.

“High school is a prime time for youth to begin a tobacco addiction, but we know that if kids don’t pick up a cigarette during these vulnerable teenage years that most of them will never start smoking later,” Hilary Schneider, director of government relations for the cancer network in Maine, said in a statement.

“In fact, 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. The higher sales age also helps offset the tobacco industry’s attempts to target young people at a critical period when many people transition from experimenting with tobacco to become regular, daily smokers.”

Smoking-related illness and disease account for about 30 percent of all deaths in Maine and the state’s adult smoking rate of 19.5 percent is 4.4 points higher than the national average, also according to U.S. CDC data.

“We urge Gov. LePage to protect the health of Maine’s youth by supporting an increase in the age of sale of tobacco to 21, and to sign L.D. 1170 into law,” Schneider said.

State financial officials originally estimated the bill would cost the state about $4.7 million a year in tobacco-related sales tax revenue, the result of a roughly 5 percent decrease in tobacco sales, once the bill is fully implemented. But an amendment to the bill exempts people already 18-20 years old and implementation is delayed until July 2018. The revenue loss to the state for 2018-2019 is estimated at $106,075.

However, proponents of raising the legal age for buying tobacco say decreased spending on tobacco-related health issues will easily offset any loss of tax revenue.

Opponents, including trade groups for Maine’s grocers and convenience store owners, told lawmakers in June that increasing the legal age for tobacco to 21 won’t prevent youth smoking. They also argued that 18 marks the age of legal adulthood, when youths gain the right to vote and eligibility for military service.

“Increased sales restrictions will not prevent minors from accessing the product,” said Joanne Mendes, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association. “The reality is that kids will find a way, sometimes through unregulated, uncontrolled, untaxed black market sources. And for those who live on the border, raising the age just gives these smokers another reason to purchase their products in New Hampshire.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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