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BISMARK, N.D. -- Arguing that North Dakota's policies for deterring youth smoking haven't shown results, a state lawmaker is introducing legislation to raise the state's
legal age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21.
No other state requires tobacco buyers to be 21, which is the legal age for buying liquor. Lawmakers in some states, including California and Iowa, have considered the idea but declined to approve it. In most states, one must be 18 to buy tobacco. In a few, including Utah, Alaska and Alabama, the legal age is 19.
State Rep. Duane DeKrey (R-Pettibone) said the state's effort to reduce underage smoking is not working. He believes the age increase will be a good first step to combating teen smoking. "If you raise the age to 21, I think it makes it more difficult to get tobacco," he said.
Under current state law, a teenager must be at least 18 to smoke, buy or keep tobacco, according to the Bismark Tribune. DeKrey said his proposal would cover tobacco sales only. Someone who is 18 years old could still smoke or possess tobacco, even though they could not buy it legally. The provision would avoid problems along the Minnesota border, where the age is 18.
Should the higher tobacco age be approved, it also would not apply to North Dakotans who were at least 18 years old before Aug. 1, 2003. It would not penalize young smokers who took up the habit when it was legal for them to do so, DeKrey said.
State health officials say smoking among North Dakota young people is a serious problem. A youth tobacco-use survey, published in January 2000 by the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said 40 percent of North Dakota high school students questioned for the survey had used tobacco within the past month. The national average was 35 percent.
Gov. John Hoeven has already proposed a steep increase in North Dakota's taxes on tobacco for the 2003 Legislature to consider. Hoeven wants to raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 44 cents to 79 cents. A group of health advocates may push for a higher, $1-a-pack increase.
Former Gov. Ed Schafer proposed raising the age to 19 almost four years ago, but the 1999 Legislature defeated the idea. Opponents said if 18-year-olds were old enough to vote and enlist in the armed services, they should be old enough to smoke if they chose.
ABOVE: North Dakota State Rep. Duane DeKrey.