Wisconsinites would have to be 21 in order to buy vaping products and cigarettes under a bipartisan bill backers touted in a public hearing Wednesday.
While many health experts and school officials applauded the legislation as "a great first step" and a means to safeguard teens, others raised concerns and lamented that it doesn't go far enough on the issue.
The bill would raise by three years the minimum age to buy cigarettes and nicotine and tobacco products. It would also make it illegal to sell vaping products to anyone under 21.
Bill co-author Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, said the legislation seeks to address the "demonstrated public health crisis caused by rampant abuse of vapor products" among young people.
“Increasing the smoking age from 18 to 21 will get these products out of the schools and ensure these students won't be able to buy them from their friends," Spiros said.
School administrators also pushed for the bill, as Arrowhead High School principal Gregg Wieczorek cited students that "are so addicted" to the products that they vape in classrooms, bathrooms and elsewhere on school grounds.
"As a high school principal, we’re dealing with this problem significantly," he said. "We’re seeing this problem at the middle school level."
Eighteen other states have already passed legislation to increase the smoking age from 18 to 21, Spiros said.
But lawmakers on the Assembly Substance Abuse and Prevention Committee raised varied concerns about the bill.
Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said the bill seeks to put "the onus on consumers" rather than sellers, who she said have purposely geared their products toward children through available flavors and packaging, behavior she called "predatory."
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said raising the age to 21 would be "a very difficult threshold for me" given that 18-year-olds are considered adults and are able to vote and serve in the military.
"And yet you're going to set a standard at 21," he said.
The state's Eye on Lobbying website, which tracks where different stakeholders come down on legislation, shows 25 groups have registered in support of the legislation. But three others are against, including the American Cancer Association, which wrote in online comments that "critical elements" are missing from it.
As of Oct. 31, the state has seen 82 cases of severe, vaping-related lung disease, though no deaths have been reported, according to the Department of Health Services.
Meanwhile, a separate bill that seeks to ban the use of vaping products and e-cigarettes in indoor public places across the state doesn’t appear to have the support to get approved this session, a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report found.
The state budget also imposed a 5-cent-per-milliliter excise tax on vaping fluid, which first applied to vapor products received by distributors beginning Oct. 1.