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SD lawmaker pushing to raise state's minimum age to buy tobacco

The age for purchasing tobacco could rise in the state of South Dakota. Matt Gade / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A bill to raise the minimum age of legal access to tobacco in South Dakota will soon face the Legislature.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Leslie Heinemann, R-Flandreau, is on the horizon, one which would raise the age to purchase tobacco products in South Dakota from 18 to 21. And Heinemann, a dentist for 36 years with practices in Flandreau and Dell Rapids, said he was happy to sign on as prime sponsor.

Heinemann said the American Cancer Society helped initiate the bill, and his health care background and history taking a "strong stand" against tobacco use with the Tobacco-Free Kids Network likely led to his involvement. Heinemann also said he tries to address the smoking habit every day in his practice, and he feels South Dakotans will appreciate the bill once they dig into the facts.

"I think if our constituents look at the numbers, they'll be surprised," said Heinemann, who represents Lake, Miner, Moody and Sanborn counties. "It's a very vulnerable population."

Heinemann rattled off some facts in support of the bill on Tuesday — a bill which has yet to be dropped in Pierre — including a statistic showing 90 percent of people who illegally purchase tobacco for minors are between the ages of 18 and 20. He also said some statistics show many smokers would be in support of the bill.

But Heinemann anticipates some opposition.

"Probably the only pushback is from the negative sales of products issue, and then people who believe in choice think that you should be able to make that decision once you turn 18, but that's a pretty weak argument given some of the facts I just mentioned," Heinemann said.

Heinemann is particularly worried about the prevalence of smokeless tobacco, which he said is the easiest product to market to teenagers. Because it appears harmless and it can be used without anyone knowing, Heinemann says he's seen an increase in its use.

Smokeless tobacco includes chewing tobacco and snuff, a finely cut or powdered tobacco, which the National Cancer Institute says causes oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancer.

Raising the tobacco age could have other benefits. According to the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, South Dakota's annual health care cost for issues directly caused by smoking is $373 million, with another $282.5 million in lost productivity.

A 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine also claims that raising the nationwide minimum age of legal access to tobacco to 21 would lead to 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths of those born between 2000 and 2019.

Heinemann has at least one ally in the South Dakota State Medical Association, which included a raised minimum age to purchase tobacco in its 2018 advocacy agenda.

"When you stop and think about it, I mean, everybody knows it's bad for you," said SDSMA President Dr. Robert Van Demark.

Van Demark said five states have raised the minimum smoking age to 21 — Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Maine and Oregon — as have approximately 285 cities. However, Van Demark expects it could require a multi-year effort to get it passed, similar to the seat belt debate of the past.

When asked how he would convince anyone who may be on the fence about raising the smoking age, Van Demark had a straightforward answer.

"When they're that young, I don't think they know how to make a good choice for things, so I think if you can delay that opportunity until they're older, I think they might make a better choice," Van Demark said.

The bill hasn't been released yet, and Mount Vernon Republican state Sen. Joshua Klumb said he'd have to review the bill to "try to determine if the hindrance to personal freedom outweighs the public benefit."

"While I am personally opposed to tobacco use and its detriments to the public health of our society, thereby potentially increasing the burden on society through increasing state funded medical services," Klumb wrote. "I'm also aware of the personal freedoms we enjoy."

While Klumb and other legislators wait to read the bill, he anticipates it will gain support.

"I think there will be more support than you'd think it will be, but obviously it's going to be a tussle between the retailer groups and so forth," Heinemann said.