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Americans have traditionally been able to legally purchase cigarettes before they could legally consume alcohol — but that won’t be the case in Pennsylvania if Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, has his way.

Senate Bill 473 would make it a summary offense for anyone under 21 to purchase any tobacco product, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, cigars and pipe tobacco.

“Adolescents are especially vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction and appear to show signs of nicotine addiction at lower levels of exposure (than) adults,” Scavello said in a co-sponsorship memo. About 13 percent of Pennsylvania high school students are smokers, he said.

Scavello’s bill also matches a trend in other states. Eighteen states have raised the tobacco age to 21, all in the last few years, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, have introduced bipartisan legislation for a nationwide ban on under-21 tobacco purchases.

Two recent scientific studies found that so-called tobacco-21 laws have been effective in reducing the amount of people aged 18-20 who smoke.

Many such initiatives have been supported by major tobacco companies, leading skeptics to smoke out a hidden motivation. The American Cancer Society claims to have found one: such bills often slip in new definitions of “alternative nicotine products” and “vapor products” for e-cigarettes, thereby exempting those devices from other existing regulations on tobacco products, it says.

The Cancer Society expressed concerns over Scavello’s bill, and the bill failed by a 6-6 vote in March in the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that vote, the bill was revamped to eliminate language referring to “alternative nicotine product” and “vapor product” and instead added all nicotine devices, including e-cigarettes, to the definition of “tobacco products.”

The amended version of the bill passed the Judiciary Committee in June by a 13-1 vote and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

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Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.

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