AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will become the fourth state to make 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products after the Legislature overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto during a long Wednesday session.
Lawmakers adjourned for the year after overriding 13 of 27 lingering vetoes from the Republican governor, ending a session that gave Maine its first government shutdown since 1991. That fight over the two-year budget stretched legislative business six weeks past a scheduled end date.
A majority of LePage’s final vetoes were upheld on Wednesday, with largely loyal House Republicans backing him to kill bills that would have banned handheld cellphone use while driving and directed regulators to draft a long-term solar energy policy.
But lawmakers were able to muster the required two-thirds votes in both chambers to pass several key public health measures, including the anti-smoking bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville. It met the required threshold in the House of Representatives by one vote.
It was backed by health groups citing national statistics saying 95 percent of smokers begin by age 21, with Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, saying on the House floor that it would “be a terrible shame” not to pass a bill to “improve the health and well-being of our adolescent youth.”
LePage has called the bill an example of “social engineering” and fellow opponents’ arguments mostly centered on liberty. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, cast the bill as an example of government overreach.
“For me, this bill is about liberty for individuals to make their own choice when they get to turn 18,” he said.
The bill doesn’t bar people younger than 21 from smoking — just from buying tobacco and electronic smoking devices. It takes effect on July 1, 2018, but it contains a provision that people who are 18 or older on that date aren’t barred from buying tobacco. So, the law won’t really be in effect until those people turn 21 in 2021.
The Legislature overrode another six vetoes of health bills, including one from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, that would restore 50 public health nursing positions that have been eliminated from the Department of Health and Human Services during LePage’s tenure.
Also overridden were vetoes of bills that will ban the sale of new furniture containing flame-retardant chemicals linked to cancer in firefighters beginning in 2019, review Maine’s $60-per-week reimbursement rate for medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment and put $500,000 toward remediation of contaminated wells for low-income people.
Alongside the cellphone and solar bills, House Republicans also sustained LePage’s veto of a bill that would restore MaineCare services to roughly 8,000 people affected when the state adopted new eligibility rules in 2016.