A bill that would ban sale of tobacco products to minors was amended by the Virginia House of Delegates to include a fine of $25. An incorrect amount was reported in yesterday's Metro section.
The Virginia House, radically altering a bill approved by the Senate, narrowly passed a bill today to ban the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to people under age 17.
In a key change that could threaten the bill's final passage, the House voted to make minors guilty of a crime and subject to a fine of up to $100 if it is proven that they have bought or possessed tobacco products. The Senate version would have imposed fines on persons who sell such merchandise to minors but not on the minors themselves.
"I just have a real problem of making criminals of children," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) before the 51-to-48 vote.
"I thought they gutted it so much to make it worthless," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who opposed subjecting children to criminal prosecution under the bill.
If differences are worked out in a conference committee and the bill becomes law, it would reimpose a ban on sales to minors that was in effect until the early 1970s, when it was eliminated from state law.
The measure has been strongly opposed by the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, which distributed letters saying that the bill would impose a hardship on businesses by requiring them to determine who was old enough to buy tobacco products.
Tobacco companies have shied away from lobbying against the bill, opponents said, to avoid appearing as if they favor the sale of tobacco to minors. The Smokeless Tobacco Council, made up of producers of chewing tobaccos, endorsed the Senate bill.
Supporters, including the Virginia chapter of the American Heart Association, have argued that tobacco threatens the health of people who are not old enough to make informed decisions about smoking and chewing, one of the fastest rising uses of tobacco among young people.
Linda McMinimy, a legislative consultant for the heart association, said today that the bill is flawed but is better than no law.
"The basic intent is to aid in deterring children from becoming addicted," said McMinimy, who said school systems could use the bill to help ban tobacco products.
"They could enforce it like they do alcohol laws," said McMinimy.
Under current law, tobacco sales are not restricted. Many vending machines have warning notices that such sales to minors are illegal, but no such law exists in Virginia, legislators said. "Most people think there is a law," McMinimy said.
The initial bill, proposed by Sen. Madison E. Marye (D-Montgomery), would have simply banned the sale of tobacco products to minors -- persons under the age of 18. It was amended by a Senate committee to exempt store owners from prosecution for any sales from vending machines on their premises.
The House Courts of Justice Committee, which killed similar bills in past sessions, further amended the measure to lower the affected age to 16, a move that could keep high schools from banning tobacco products because many high school students are as old as 18.
Del. Samuel J. Glasscock (D-Suffolk), floor manager of the bill today, pointed out that even North Carolina, which is the nation's leading tobacco state, bans the sale to minors, imposing penalties of up to six months in jail and $500 fines.