Legislators seek enforcement of age limits on tobacco sales

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Vaping shops and other tobacco retail outlets in New Mexico would be licensed and regulated by the state for the first time, under a proposal headed toward a decisive state House vote.

The proposal from Democratic legislators responds to rising rates of vaping among children and young adults. The federal government late last year changed the minimum age from 18 to 21 nationwide for purchasing tobacco products, including vaping cartridges and e-cigarettes.

The Senate-approved bill would license retail tobacco vendors and apply administrative sanctions against prohibited sales to youths under age 21. A House panel on health policy endorsed the bill Monday, setting up a House floor vote. The Legislature has until noon Thursday to send bills to the governor.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the regulatory framework. Fewer than a dozen states forgo retail licenses for tobacco sales.

At a legislative hearing Monday, New Mexico State Epidemiologist Michael Landon highlighted indications of a steep increase in vaping among minors in middle and high school.

The tobacco bill allows for license suspensions and penalties of up to $10,000 against tobacco retailers for underage sales. A license can be revoked permanently at a location after four violations within three years.

Unlicensed sales would be handled as a misdemeanor criminal offense. Sales between people under the age of 21 would not be penalized under the proposed state law — a provision that prompted some concern among lawmakers.

“This is a potential entry point,” said physician and Republican Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, noting his concern about youth vaping. “They could be on these things for the rest of their lives.”

Presenting the bill, Rep. Elizabeth Thomson of Albuquerque said, “Kids will be kids. ... We're not going to go into schools."

Republican state Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena disclosed that she owns a convenience store in her hometown that would require a tobacco license under the bill. She nevertheless cast her committee vote in favor of the licensing system, while also expressing concerns about increased regulation of small businesses and worries that young store clerks would not confront direct penalties for violating age restrictions on sales.

Proponents of the bill note it would allow regulators to better understand who is selling tobacco products and where. Stores on Native American trust land will continue to fall under federal jurisdiction for enforcement.

The tobacco regulations would be overseen by the alcohol beverage control division of the Regulation and Licensing Department. Retailers would initially pay $750 per location to apply for a license and $400 for renewals. The fees would help pay for the administration of licenses and enforcement activities.

Related bills that would ban sales and free samples of flavored tobacco, e-cigarette or nicotine products have languished. The advancing bill says retailers “shall not sell tobacco products that are knowingly attractive to minors.”

Flavored products have attracted criticism over their potential to attract young users. Advocates for the e-cigarette industry say vaping products save lives by helping smokers quit.