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Illinois Lawmakers, Public Health Officials, Denounce Tobacco 21 Veto

Sam Dunklau
NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
(From left) Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Paul Pederson, MD, and Scott Saxe speak against Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of statewide Tobacco 21 legislation

Public health advocates and some state lawmakers spurned Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s decision to veto a bill that would have raised the legal tobacco age to 21.

Rauner axed the bill last Friday, though his own Department of Public Health supported it. While he called smoking “detrimental” in his veto message, the governor said Illinois couldn’t take the risk of losing tobacco sales tax revenue to neighboring states.

Among the supporters of a higher tobacco age is Joel Africk of the Respiratory Health Association. He says smoking-related healthcare costs are a bigger burden on taxpayers than lost sales taxes.

“How do you balance kids and health against tobacco industry propaganda about Illinois border towns losing sales?" Africk asked rhetorically during Tuesday's news conference in Springfield.

Advocates also pointed to drops in youth smoking rates, which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data supports. Its2017 survey of Illinois high school students showed only 8 percent currently smoke cigarettes, down from almost 20 percent a decade ago.

Others stood behind Rauner's decision, like Bill Fleischli of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and Association of Convenience Stores. He says the measure wouldn’t have stopped kids from picking up tobacco. Since it would have taken away the current state penalty for underage possession, Fleischli believes kids would have bought tobacco in other states, only to use it in Illinois.

“You’re gonna make ‘em stop buying in Illinois," he explained. "And if they do, I guess you could say they’d, and not to be smart, blow smoke in a law officer’s face. There’s nothing they could do, because possession was taken away.”

State lawmakers say they’ll try to override the decision during the fall veto session.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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