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Wyoming Law Enforcement Not Likely to Enforce Fed Tobacco Law

in News/politics
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By Ellen Fike

Cowboy State Daily

The end of the year is ordinarily a hectic time with the rush to complete holiday shopping and preparing for the new year. People usually scramble to complete their work in time for a relaxing few days off from work.

But lawmakers in Washington D.C. were unusually busy passing one piece of legislation in the closing days of the year: a spending bill that also increased the national smoking age to 21 from 18. 

It can take months to implement new laws, but on Dec. 20, the age increase went into effect immediately, putting a strain on retailers selling cigarettes and other tobacco-related products (such as vapes, chewing tobacco and more).

However, in Wyoming, law enforcement officers enforce state laws, not federal ones, creating some confusion over how to handle the new age for tobacco use.

Crook County Sheriff Jeff Hodge said that the smoke has begun to clear over what it means to enforce a state law vs. a federal law. 

“When the Federal Drug Administration passed the law, it was more for retailers to enforce rather than police,” Hodge said. “We definitely got a lot of calls about it, so I ended up writing a press release to clear up some of the confusion. Ultimately, we’re going to keep marching on as we always have.” 

Legally, no one under the age of 21 can buy cigarettes or other tobacco products anywhere in the country, as it’s a federal crime. 

However until the Wyoming Legislature passes a new state statute reflecting the federal law, officers won’t do much, if anything, regarding possession of tobacco products by those under 21. 

A person between the ages of 18 and 20 can possess any tobacco products in the state of Wyoming and won’t be penalized for it, at least for the time being. 

“For example, if an 18-year-old is involved in a traffic stop and they have tobacco in the car, the officer isn’t going to do or say anything about it at this point,” said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. “Really, it’s state law that someone between 18 and 20 can have tobacco. Federally, they just can’t purchase it for themselves.” 

Federal agents could run compliance checks at retailers that sell tobacco, so if anyone is caught selling to a person under 21, hefty fines could be in place for the seller and the business, Oedekoven said. 

While 19 states already had laws on their books stating that no one under 21 could purchase tobacco products, the law passed in December made it apply nationally. 

The change is intended to discourage teens from smoking, as vaping nicotine has surged in popularity among young people in the last few years. In March 2015, the National Academy of Medicine published information that showed by raising the smoking age to 21, more than 223,000 deaths could be prevented among people born between 2000 to 2019. It would also reduce lung cancer deaths by 50,000.

The Legislature could approve a statute mirroring the federal law during its upcoming budget session. But it could either go into effect immediately or not until July 1. 

Once the state law passes to ban those under 21 from possessing tobacco, anyone between 18 and 20 who is caught with tobacco or tobacco products could receive a possession citation, although Oedekoven noted that it’s up to the discretion of law enforcement and prosecutors to go forward with pursuing that type of charge. It would also be up to the court’s discretion on how much to fine someone possessing tobacco. 

“I think it would be fair to say that if you ended up in court with a smoking citation, there were lots of other things you were doing besides just have cigarettes on you,” Oedekoven said. “It’s an interesting dilemma you have here, but this isn’t the only federal law that isn’t enforced in Wyoming.” 

While Oedekoven and Hodge understand why the age was increased from 18 to 21, they both felt as if Congress was a little hasty passing the legislation as quickly as it did. 

“I think maybe the feds are overreaching a bit,” Hodge said. “There are a lot of opinions out there about the increase, like how you can go to war, but you can’t buy cigarettes now. I know vaping is a bigger issue than smoking or chewing, but I just think that this was a haste law that wasn’t very well thought out.”

Health officials: Vaping no safe alternative to smoking

in News/Health care
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By Cowboy State Daily

As the number of people with reported respiratory ailments linked to vaping rises, Wyoming’s health officials are warning residents that vaping is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.

“Vaping is not safe for adolescents, for young adults, for pregnant women or for anybody who is not a current smoker,” said Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer and epidemiologist.

National reports indicate more than 1,100 people are suffering from lung illnesses related to vaping, with 23 deaths reported. In Wyoming, Harrist said two cases of vaping-related illnesses have been reported.

Officials are unsure what is causing people to become sick, Harrist said.

“What we’re seeing now is an outbreak of severe pulmonary disease related to vaping,” she said. “And we’re still trying to figure out what the specific substance or device is that is causing this illness.”

Most of the people reporting the illness appear to be young adults, Harrist said.

“This certainly does seem to be something new and something different,” she said. “Because these are young, healthy people being admitted to the hospital with respiratory problems and sometimes even respiratory failure.”

Cheyenne resident Kathleen Jaure said she began vaping last year to stop smoking cigarettes. She theorized that the rise in lung ailments may be related to the rise in use of the electronic smoking devices.

“Maybe the potency is going up, that makes it more problematic,” she said. “Also, more people are doing it and so you’re going to see problems. And usually with something, it doesn’t happen overnight that there’s a problem. So I think as it goes on, then we’re starting to recognize the effects of vaping.”

Health officials report that lung ailments related to vaping display symptoms similar to those seen with the flu or pneumonia.

Tobacco tax dies in House committee

in News/Taxes
Extinguished cigarette on a table toble next to ashtray, ALT=Tobacco tax
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A measure that would have boosted taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products was killed in a House committee on Monday.

The House Revenue Committee voted 5-4 to keep HB 218 from reaching the House floor The bill would have increased cigarette taxes by $1 per pack, from 60 cents to $1.60.

The measure was one of a number of bills introduced this session aimed at raising tax revenues. 

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the House Revenue Committee, said the bills represent ways legislators are looking at avoiding a state budget deficit moving forward.

“Three years ago after the financial crisis hit Wyoming, we were still in crisis mode, tryng to see how far down we were going to go,” he said. “Now that we’ve stabilized, it’s time to say ‘How are we going to fix this decrease.’ We’re $350 million still in deficit and so that’s why you’re seeing a lot of tax bills this session. It’s to say long-term moving forward, how do we make sure we have a balanced budget?”

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