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Bills to help children benefits big tobacco, critics say

Children or teens who purchase or possess e-cigarettes could be fined and placed under juvenile court jurisdiction.

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Two bills currently moving through the Legislature are being heavily influenced by big tobacco lobbyists, according to critics.  

HB319, sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, and SB271 by state Sen. Garland Gudger, R-Cullman, is being promoted as legislation to help Alabama’s youth. Still, according to the American Heart Association and partners, “the bill in its current form would be harmful to children and give a pass to those selling tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to minors.”

Surprisingly, lobbyists with ties to tobacco giant RJ Reynolds and Alabama Children First — which helps shape policy for the state’s youngest citizens — are working behind the scene to pass a bill written to benefit tobacco, according to observers.

A group controlled by Heather Coleman, who state records also lists as Darby Coleman and Heather Davis, represent the Patrick Group, led by Ferrell Patrick, who is the lobbyist for RAI Services Company, which is part of Reynolds American.

Coleman’s political action committee, BIZ PAC, has received over $140,000 in campaign contributions from RAI Services Company.

Children First oversee the tobacco settlement allocation in Alabama, yet Colman, the organization’s lobbyist, takes money from the tobacco interest to elect state officeholders.

Under the proposed legislation, children or teens who purchase or possess e-cigarettes can be fined up to $200, suffer the loss of their driver’s licenses, and be placed under juvenile court jurisdiction. In contrast, those who sell the product “may” be fined or sanctioned under the law.

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The annual retail licensing fee of $150 is less than what a child could face in penalties and far less than what would be needed to enforce retail compliance.

“There is no evidence that putting kids in the court system with fines, suspending kids, or even making them do community service helps with a nicotine addiction.” Jada Shaffer, senior regional head of government affairs for the American Heart Association, said. “Kids need help with the nicotine addiction through cessation and counseling.”

She also added: “Big tobacco targeted kids with fruity flavors and successfully addicted a whole new generation of kids to nicotine. And now they are shifting the blame to kids and penalizing them. HB319/SB271 further victimizes Alabama’s children all over again.”

Alabama’s recent history points to other bewildering legislation that favors tobacco giants or at least muddies the water.

In 2019, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed into law, the Minimum Legal Sales Age for tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — to 21. The only requirement for states was to enforce the new minimum sales age in accordance with the revised Synar Amendment to ensure a retail violation rate of no more than 20 percent.   
In 2021, Alabama raised its minimum legal sales age to 21 to align with federal law. Still, state lawmakers went a puzzling step further, creating an Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems directory within the Department of Revenue. Critics say the directory is a waste of state resources and is a tactic of the tobacco industry to divert attention from proven public health policies. HB319 seeks to generate the revenue to fund the directory, to the dismay of those who see it as a new unneeded bureaucracy.

According to opponents of HB319 and SB271, the tobacco industry has already passed legislation that confuses retailers and those who oversee enforcement. These laws have also created loopholes for products to remain on the market and to be sold to minors. The bills being carried by Drummond and Gudger are more of the same.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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