Healthcare, West Virginia Legislature

Senate Judiciary OKs bill to raise smoking age to 21; also handles church and sexual assault measures

MORGANTOWN – Senate Judiciary cruised through a series of bills on Friday, dealing with churches, sexual assault, and belief-based student organizations, but the one that spurred the most debate was one to raise the legal smoking age.

SB 717 raises the age for the legal purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21 (matching the legal drinking age). It also updates the list of tobacco products to add e-cigarettes, e-cigars, e-pipes, vape pens, e-hookahs, filters, rolling papers, blunt or hemp wraps and pipes.

It shifts the responsibility for inspections from the Alcohol Beverage Control Administration to the Bureau for Behavioral Health.

It removes penalties for underage smokers but defines penalties for sellers and the sellers’ employees.

Nicholas Stutchell, with the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said state law, which sets the legal age at 18, conflicts with federal law that sets the age at 21. The Bureau for Behavioral Health does the retailer inspections, but the feds want 18- to 20-year-olds to attempt the purchases, and State Police, who would write the citations, can’t enforce federal law.

The conflict, he said, would mean a loss of about $875,000 per year in federal substance abuse block grants. “We would not like to lose the funding.”

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, was among those opposing the bill. He said his son serves in the army in Kuwait, and he dips snuff. “That’s what West Virginians do. … It’s a rite of passage.” And if the bill passes, he won’t be able to when he comes home.

Sen. Jay Taylor, R-Taylor, said smoking is disgusting and kills millions. But 18-year-olds can vote and go to war. “Who are we to take away their freedom to go outside and light one up?”

The vote was conducted with a show of hands and was approved 8-5. It goes to the full Senate.

SJR 6 resurrects a constitutional amendment that failed in the cascade amendment crash of 2002, when all four proposals went down to defeat. This one would put before the voters in November an amendment to the state Constitution to allow incorporation of churches.

Churches incorporate in order to obtain some legal protections, such as liability, and to make it easier to borrow money and purchase property. The amendment would delete the sentence prohibiting the granting of charters from the constitution and replace it with one saying, “Provisions may also be made by general laws for the incorporation of churches or religious denominations that choose to incorporate.”

The wording is slightly different from the 2022 version, and committee chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the phrase “that choose to incorporate” because people thought the prior amendment required churches to incorporate.

The state of Virginia’s Constitution contained a similar clause that was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2002 for violating the First Amendment. Virginia and West Virginia were the only two states with such a ban.

Starting in 2003, then-Secretary of State Joe Manchin began granting charters and all subsequent secretaries have done the same. But when the 2022 amendment failed, Secretary of State Mac Warner stopped issuing corporate charters.

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, pointed out that one reason this and the other amendments failed in 2022 was because the state-authorized explanatory material about them was confusing and indecipherable.

The senators approved the resolution, and it goes next to Finance.

SB 769 would prohibit a court from ordering a sexual assault victim to unwillingly undergo a physical exam. Refusal may not serve as the basis to exclude evidence obtained from other relevant examinations of the victim.

Molly Montague, with the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network said her organization supports the bill. It ensures survivors are not forced to undergo an invasive exam and to not be retraumatized by exams that aren’t medially important.

Senators approved the bill in a unanimous voice vote. It is on second reading on the Senate floor.

The introduced version of SB 503, approved by the Education Committee, says a state institution of higher education may not deny a religious, political, or ideological student organization that is open to all students any benefit or privilege made generally available to any other student organization, or otherwise discriminate against the organization, based on: the expression of the organization; or a requirement that the organization’s leaders or members affirm and adhere to the organization’s sincerely held beliefs, comply with the organization’s standards of conduct, or further the organization’s mission or purpose.

The Judiciary approved a committee substitute for the bill without discussion or debate, but the changes were not available for review Friday afternoon. It goes to the full Senate.