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The Maryland General Assembly on Tuesday passed a measure to raise the age for buying tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21. In this 2016 file photo, processed tobacco heads down a line at a tobacco company in Danville, Virginia.
The Maryland General Assembly on Tuesday passed a measure to raise the age for buying tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21. In this 2016 file photo, processed tobacco heads down a line at a tobacco company in Danville, Virginia. (Matt Bell / AP)

Maryland’s General Assembly passed a measure Wednesday to raise the age for buying tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21 — after carving out an exemption for members of the military.

The bill, which proponents say is aimed at protecting teens from the harmful health effects of smoking, but which some Republicans decried as “nanny state” legislation, would make Maryland the ninth state in the nation to raise the age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products.

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The legislation, sponsored by Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat, gained final passage Wednesday in the House of Delegates on a 101-35 vote. The Senate already had approved it with a vote of 32-13. It would take effect Oct. 1.

Raising the age for buying tobacco was a priority of Democratic leaders in the legislature, as well as the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.

“I’m real excited about the bill passing,” said Del. Darryl Barnes, a Prince George’s Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. “The caucus worked extremely hard to educate our members on how important this legislation is for the African American community.”

Barnes said the bill’s supporters are “not trying to tell folks what to do.”

“But we’re trying to let teens have an opportunity to fully understand what they're putting in their body and the effects of smoking as it related to cancer,” he said. “It works for all Marylanders. It helps our insurance companies. It helps our hospitals. It’s a huge win for us.”

The legislation now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration. A spokesman for Hogan said he hasn’t taken a public position on the bill yet.

However, both chambers passed the legislation by veto-proof margins. It takes the state Senate 29 votes and the House 85 votes to override a veto.

The legislation would apply to all types of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping devices. Retailers would have to post signs warning that the products can be sold only to those age 21 or older. The bill wouldn’t change the penalty for selling tobacco to those under age, currently a fine that begins at $300 for a first offense.

There’s a growing trend toward raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21, putting it in line with buying alcohol and gambling. Six states already have raised the tobacco purchase age to 21. Arkansas, Utah and Maryland’s​​​​ neighbor, Virginia, have approved legislation to raise the age limit on future dates, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

A new poll of more than 800 Maryland residents by Goucher College found 66% supported raising the age limit to 21, while 31% opposed the change.

Maryland General Assembly bill tracker: What happened with key legislation

Check the status of bills that would establish a $15 minimum wage, let school boards decide whether to start classes after Labor Day, ban the use of plastic foam, and other measures.

To help the bill pass, the General Assembly accepted an amendment from Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, to include an exception that allows people who are 18 or older to buy tobacco products if they show a military identification.

“To say that people in the military, if they're 19 or 20, can’t smoke a cigarette or a cigar, to me was an affront,” Hough said.

Del. Nic Kipke, the Anne Arundel Republican who is House Minority Leader, said he voted no on the bill because that’s what his supporters wanted.

“I reached out to voters in my district and they were overwhelmingly opposed,” he said. “There was concern that there was no phase-in. There were concerns from people who think they should have the right to make decisions for themselves.”

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Even so, Kipke said he saw some merit in the bill.

“I really do not like cigarettes and I do like the idea we're going to be limiting people getting hooked on cigarettes,” he said.

Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, also voted against the bill.

”I think smoking is a bad habit and people shouldn’t do it, but this is an example of government overreach,” Ready said. “All in all, I just found it unnecessary. Continued education is the way to help keep people from smoking. Also, the bill removes the enforcement language out of the law that allowed for underage smokers to receive citations — so really we are sending a mixed message.”

The American Cancer Society supports the bill and urged the governor to sign it — even though Jocelyn Collins of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network said the military exemption “diminishes” the bill’s ability to protect young people from the harmful effects of tobacco and nicotine use.

“We strongly believe that young military recruits deserve the same protections as all Maryland citizens under 21,” Collins said.

She said the cancer society will work in the future to eliminate the military exemption.

The bill was supported by e-cigarette company JUUL Labs. The company’s devices are popular with teens, but JUUL has worked to promote its product as one designed for adults who already smoke and want a different option.

“We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” said Ted Kwong, a JUUL spokesman, in a statement.

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