SC Senate passes ban on tobacco sale restrictions, adds measures to limit sales to minors

Right now, cities and counties in South Carolina are free to enact their own restrictions on tobacco and vape sales.
Published: May. 4, 2023 at 10:01 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2023 at 10:39 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Right now, cities and counties in South Carolina are free to enact their own restrictions on tobacco and vape sales.

But a bill that may soon be on Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk would ban them from imposing these local rules.

H.3681 would make it illegal for local governments to enforce local rules on cigarette, e-cigarette, vape, and other tobacco and nicotine product sales, including banning products with certain flavors or ingredients from being sold within a city or county.

Supporters argue uniform tobacco regulations are needed statewide for businesses that operate in multiple places.

“With inconsistent rules, it’s impossible for businesses to stay afloat. It’s tough enough as it is, but these small businesses need this help,” Sen. Billy Garrett, R-McCormick, said.

Local laws and ordinances put in place before 2021 would be grandfathered in under this bill.

It also would not prevent cities and counties from enacting no-smoking areas or zoning ordinances to ban smoke or vape sales in certain places, like close to schools.

The House of Representatives passed this bill earlier this year. Senators amended it in their debate this week to also include language from a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, designed to crack down on stores illegally selling nicotine products to minors.

“Right now, they just get a slap on the wrist. This will set up a process that if they keep doing it, they will lose their right to sell nicotine products across the board, and I think people will respond to that,” Hutto said.

Hutto’s amendment bans minors from even entering stores that primarily sell tobacco and nicotine products, like smoke and vape shops, but it would not prohibit children from going into stores that sell tobacco and nicotine products but primarily sell other items, like grocery stores.

It would create a new tobacco retail sales license and require stores that sell tobacco and nicotine products, including vape and e-cigarette products, have one. According to the CDC, South Carolina is one of 10 states that do not have such a license requirement currently in effect.

The state Department of Revenue, which would regulate these licenses, would make at least one unannounced visit annually to all of those retailers.

The measure also increases the penalties for retailers caught illegally selling to minors, including suspending their license for a week after two offenses within a three-year period.

If a retailer is in violation four or more times within a three-year period, they would face a minimum $1,200 fine and would not be allowed to sell tobacco and nicotine products for three years.

“There are going to be people watching you. There are going to be penalties if you’re selling to children. So, if you are, stop it,” Hutto said.

The American Cancer Society opposes this ban on local governments imposing their own tobacco rules, saying South Carolina needs local laws to protect kids, not state interference.

The organization reports over a quarter of South Carolina high school students use tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

“Today’s vote will do nothing more than worsen the youth tobacco epidemic by tying the hands of our local elected officials to act,” Beth Johnson, the South Carolina government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement. “South Carolinians have long valued freedom and liberty. Lawmakers today voted outside our state’s strongest values by allowing special interest groups like Big Tobacco and their allies to take away our freedoms and put our family’s pocketbooks and health at risk.”

All Democratic senators but Hutto voted against the bill, which the Senate passed in a 26-16 vote.

“It’s hard to reconcile as we talk about children that we would be in favor of rolling back one of the most powerful tools that local government has,” Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D – Charleston, said.

The bill will next return to the House, which will need to decide before the legislative session ends May 11 if it will agree with the Senate’s changes and send the bill to the governor, or if it will try to work out a compromise between their versions of the legislation.