If you want to buy tobacco products, should it matter where you live?
S.C. lawmakers are considering banning cities and counties from setting their own rules governing the sale of cigarettes and vaping products. Banning local restrictions is supported by tobacco companies and local retailers but opposed by local governments and public-health advocates.
The bill would prevent any local rules governing the flavoring and ingredients in tobacco products, and stop cities or counties from creating their own tobacco-licensing rules.
Fred Allen, a lobbyist for cigarette-maker Reynolds American Tobacco, told S.C. House lawmakers Tuesday a “hodge-podge” of local rules would cost retailers business, force customers to drive out of their way for products they want, and cut the state’s tax revenue from tobacco. Counting money from the national tobacco settlement, Allen said state revenue from tobacco totals about $216 million a year.
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The bill would not restrict new local smoking bans in public places or stop localities from adding vape products to such bans.
But Ian Hamilton of Columbia worries the proposal sends the wrong message about the dangers of tobacco. Just two weeks before his wedding, Hamilton told lawmakers his father-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“On our honeymoon night, my wife cried — sobbed — because she knew her father was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it,” Hamilton said. “It’s my hope this body will do everything it can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Local governments object that rules on similar commercial transactions — Sunday alcohol sales, for example — already vary from one jurisdiction to another. They also say vaping by young people increasingly is an issue.
Tiger Wells with the Municipal Association of S.C. cited a study saying 20 percent of high school students and 5 percent of middle school students use vaping products, a 70 percent increase between 2017 and 2018.
“The rapid increase threatens to undo five decades of health gains,” Wells said. “You can see how a resident who is aware of the harmful effects might go to their city council and say, ‘Y’all, we’ve got to do something about this.’ ”
Last year, legislators attempted a similar ban of local rules when the House approved restrictions on local governments banning plastic bags. Ultimately, that bill died, and many local governments since have extended plastic bans to cover other items including straws, especially along the coast.
The proposal pits well-represented special interests against each other.
Reynolds American spent $40,000 lobbying S.C. lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session, according to the state Ethics Commission. The S.C. Petroleum Marketers Association, which also supports the bill, spent $16,600 last year.
Two opponents of the bill, the Municipal Association and the Association of Counties, spent a total of $205,000 on lobbying last year.
The tobacco bill is sponsored by both GOP House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of York and Democratic Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Richland, who helped move the bill through a House subcommittee on Tuesday. The bill now goes to the full House Ways and Means Committee for consideration.
“We ought to have consistent laws statewide,” Rutherford said. “If business is struggling, the city and county government don’t come in to help them. ... This merely says retailers can operate without the government telling them, ‘You can’t sell this, even if every other store in the county can.’ ”
Rutherford also said he supports raising the statewide age to buy tobacco products to 21 from 18. Allen said Reynolds American would be willing to support that move.
“We engage aggressively with our retailers on age verifications,” Allen said. “We want to do what we can to keep our product out of the hands of underage youth but not consenting adults who want to use them.”