Higher smoking age, new smoking taxes among top legislative priorities for Indiana Chamber of Commerce

Kevin Brinegar, CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, announces the business group's 2020 legislative agenda during a Nov. 18, 2019, luncheon in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — The state's leading business organization is calling on Hoosier lawmakers to restrict the smoking of both legal and illegal substances, as part of an effort to improve Indiana's workforce quality and workplace safety.

Kevin Brinegar, CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said last week it's a top priority for the influential interest group to reduce the state's smoking rate by having the General Assembly set 21, instead of 18, as the minimum age to use tobacco or vape.

Brinegar said smoking costs Indiana businesses more than $6 billion a year in lost productivity and increased health care costs.

At the same time, the increasing popularity of vaping among younger Hoosiers made Indiana one of very states where the smoking rate has increased in recent years to 21% — well above the national average of 15%, he said.

In addition to hiking the smoking age, Brinegar said the chamber wants lawmakers to further deter smoking by boosting the state's tax on cigarettes to $3 per pack, from $1, and imposing similar tax rates on vaping devices and supplies.

"Raising the age for legal purchase of all tobacco and vaping products, increasing the cigarette tax and taxing e-cigarette products should fall into the no-brainer category," Brinegar said.

Likewise, he said the chamber opposes any legalization of marijuana because he claimed it leads to increased employee absenteeism and workplace injuries, and marijuana is not recognized as a legitimate medical treatment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"It is the position of the board of the directors of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce that we oppose the legalization of recreational or medical marijuana," Brinegar said.

Besides smoking, the chamber is asking lawmakers to take steps to improve education and workforce development by refining, but not eliminating, the frequently revised A-F accountability system for Indiana schools and school districts.

"We need to be able to compare student achievement relative to our academic standards, and compare student performance all the way from Angola down to Evansville," Brinegar said.

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The chamber also believes Indiana could grow enrollment in college and other postsecondary programs by requiring all high school students complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and taking advantage of any assistance programs for which they're eligible.

"Many students and families are leaving money on the table for postsecondary education," Brinegar said.

Other chamber priorities for the annual legislative session include the adoption of a statewide energy plan and continued implementation of programs aimed at improving or replacing Indiana's aging water infrastructure.

"Energy and water are to jobs and economic development what water and air are to us as individuals," Brinegar said.

The chamber also wants to reduce the number of occupations subject to professional licensing, improve price transparency in health care and maintain the current employer contribution rate to Indiana's underfunded unemployment insurance program.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, declined to endorse the entire chamber agenda after it was announced during a luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis.

But Bosma said the Republican-controlled Legislature is likely to back many of the chamber's policy positions, as it usually does, within the limitations of the legislative calendar and the individual agendas of the 100 representatives and 50 senators.

"Nine and a half weeks is what we're going to have for this ultra-short session," said Bosma, who pledged to personally champion an increase in the state's smoking age.

The General Assembly convenes its 2020 session Jan. 6 and will meet regularly through March 11 before adjourning for the year.