Missouri bills would ban possession of cigarettes by minors
JEFFERSON CITY -- As the Missouri House was approving a plan Tuesday to set up a trust fund for money from the state's tobacco settlement, three Democratic lawmakers began a new assault on underage smoking.
Reps. Tom Hoppe, Craig Hosmer and Katherine Hollingsworth presented bills that would outlaw the possession of cigarettes or other tobacco products by persons under 18.
Current law prohibits minors from purchasing cigarettes, but it does not prohibit their possession. Current law also allows parents or other family members to give children tobacco products.
The proposal by Hoppe and Hosmer would make possession by minors punishable by a citation on first offense and by community service on subsequent convictions. Hollingsworth's proposal would make possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to 15 days in jail.
"We need to give authorities the tools to deal with (underage smoking)," said Hoppe, a Kansas City Democrat. "We hope that with this bill, when an officer sees kids smoking, at least he can take the cigarettes away."
Hollingsworth, an Imperial Democrat, said she expected the most violations would be handled with a citation even under her bill. But the stiffer maximum penalty is proper because possession of cigarettes should mirror possession of alcohol, she said.
"Today you can go into a restaurant in Missouri and see 13-year-olds or even younger children sitting at tables smoking," Hollingsworth said. "Kids can be standing on street corners smoking, and there is nothing that law enforcement can do."
Hollingsworth's bill would make it a crime for parents to give cigarettes to their children. She acknowledged that the provision was likely to spark opposition in the legislature. But it is already illegal for parents to provide alcohol to their children, she noted.
"If we can fine retailers for selling tobacco to minors, then we can require parents and their children to have some responsibility, too," she said.
The Hoppe bill, besides banning underage tobacco possession, contains several other measures intended to reduce teen smoking. It prohibits the sale of single packs of cigarettes except in vending machines and when displayed in a secure location. Vending machines would be required to have a lock that allowed them to function only after a clerk authorized the purchase.
The bill also would impose a fine of up to $1,000 and a one-year jail term for altering a driver's license or identification card. And if a store was caught selling cigarettes to minors three times, each subsequent offense would result in a $250 fine and suspension of the store's license to sell tobacco products for five days.
Hosmer, a Springfield Democrat who has introduced similar legislation in the past, said the bill had a much better chance this year. The settlement of the state's lawsuit against cigarette makers prohibits the companies from lobbying against legislation to control youth smoking.
Hosmer said the state must take swift action to reduce teen smoking. Recent surveys show that 26 percent of Missouri adults smoke but that 40 percent of Missouri high school-aged teens are smokers.
"At 40 percent, the health care costs this state will face will grow so fast that the (expected $6.7 billion) tobacco settlement won't come close to paying for it," he said.
Earlier Tuesday the House voted 144-8 to create a trust fund for the tobacco money. Cigarette makers already have paid $105 million into an escrow account and will pay an additional $78 million in April. But the state cannot touch the funds until all litigation involving the settlement is finished.
The bill, which Democratic Rep. Tim Van Zandt of Kansas City sponsored, sets up a trust fund to hold the money once it is released to the state. The money could not be spent until a spending plan is adopted by voters.
Republicans have criticized the bill, saying it never asks voters whether they would prefer having the money returned to taxpayers. Rep. Brent Evans, a St. Louis County Republican, said special interests had already lined up to get a share of the money.
"The money needs to be sent back to taxpayers," Evans said. "This is just bigger government, the same way we increased the gas tax and haven't fixed the roads. The same way we increased school taxes and they haven't gotten any better. You're going to spend the money and taxpayers will have nothing to show for it."
Van Zandt said the bill was a way to let voters decide what to do with the money instead of the courts.
"Unlike the gentleman we just heard from, I would trust the voters," he said.
Tobacco trust fund bill is HB1506 (Van Zandt, Smith). Teen-smoking bills are HB1433 (Hollingsworth) and HB1652 (Hosmer, Hoppe). Legislation is available on the Missouri General Assembly site on the Internet, http://www.moga.state.mo.us/