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Should Indiana increase its smoking age to 21? House panel says yes

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, makes the case Monday at the House Public Health Committee for his legislation that would set 21 as the minimum age to purchase or use tobacco products in Indiana, up from 18. The panel voted 8-0 to advance Brown's proposal to the full House.

INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers would be prohibited from purchasing or smoking cigarettes, including electronic cigarettes, until age 21, under legislation unanimously approved Monday by the House Public Health Committee.

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, is sponsor of House Bill 1380, which he hopes will prevent an entire generation from starting to smoke and suffering the negative health consequences caused by tobacco products.

"We are here to save lives," Brown said. "That's what this bill is all about."

His proposal to raise the state's smoking age from 18 was supported by a variety of health groups, including the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, the March of Dimes and military readiness organizations, as well as the powerful Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Kevin Brinegar, CEO of the state business interest group, said Hoosier companies pay billions of dollars each year in extra health care costs, and lose billions more in productivity, due to employee smoking habits.

"Unless you are in the business of selling tobacco products, smoking is bad for business in Indiana," Brinegar said.

The measure was opposed by three groups in the business of selling tobacco products: gas stations, grocery stores and vape shops.

Joe Lackey, president of the Indiana Grocery and Convenience Store Association, said hiking the smoking age won't prevent Hoosiers under 21 from smoking.

It simply will lead them to cross state lines to purchase cigarettes for themselves and their friends, costing Indiana millions of dollars a year in cigarette tax revenue, he said.

Brown dismissed those potential state revenue losses as a "boogeyman."

He said Indiana stands to save far more money in decades to come as the state will not have to pay for tobacco-related health expenses through Medicaid and similar programs.

"What's more important: revenue or a life?" Brown asked.

"You cannot put a value on one life. That's what should be uppermost in our minds as we determine what is best for Indiana — and that is for us to be smoke-free."

This is the second year in a row that this committee has recommended Indiana join the five states and dozens of municipalities, including Chicago, that prohibit either tobacco sales or tobacco use prior to age 21.

House Bill 1578 was derailed last year because it also included a significant hike in the state's cigarette tax rate that proved unpopular with members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

This year, state Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, the committee chairwoman, deleted Brown's proposed cigarette tax increase from the legislation before forwarding it to the full chamber.

A House vote on whether to advance the smoking age change to the Senate could come as soon as Thursday.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.