A local legislator has sponsored a bill that would raise the purchasing age of tobacco in Arkansas.

District 75 state Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, has filed House Bill 1519, which if passed would prohibit the sale of tobacco, vapor, alternative nicotine and e-liquid products to anyone under 21 years old with the exemption of those enlisted in the military. The bill follows similar bills passed in six states which, Johnson said, "has cut tobacco use in half."

The bill has been assigned to the rules committee and will hopefully go to the house floor next week, Johnson said. It is co-sponsored by District 78 state Rep. Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith.

"This has been framed as an epidemic by our National Surgeon General," Johnson said at a legislative forum Friday. "It’s a serious problem that’s affecting these kids."

Johnson estimated about 14 percent of high school students in Arkansas use tobacco products. Nationally, e-cigarette use for people under 18 has increased 900 percent since 2011, he said.

Moving the age requirement for purchase from 18 to 21 would largely move tobacco use out of high school students' social network, Johnson said.

"Fifteen-year-olds hang out with 18-year-olds. It’s high school; it’s the same group. But not many 15-year-olds hang out with 21-year-olds," Johnson said. He said the military exemption was put in the bill because troops come to Arkansas from other states that don't have such legislation.

Though Johnson spoke highly of the proposed legislation's possible health benefits, he said it would cost the state about $4 million in taxes from such products. However, he said the potential healthcare savings far eclipses the money lost.

"There are numbers out there that say for every dollar lost on tax revenue, you gain 30 dollars saved in healthcare cost," Johnson said. "When you look at what we spend in the state of Arkansas, a study came out just recently that says we’re spending $795 million a year on medicaid tax dollars on tobacco-related billing."

"I don’t even think that should be a factor in this discussion," District 77 state Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, said. "If you’re talking about something that’s addictive and can lead to your death, we shouldn’t worry about what it’s going to cost the state as far as tax dollars. That’s not even on the table."

Though Boyd was pleased with the prospects of the bill, he said he would like to see Johnson produce data about the effects of such legislation before he gives it full support. District 76 state Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, and District 8 state Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, both supported the bill.

"How much are we spending because people are using tobacco as a state?" Pitsch said, alluding to Johnson's claim about Medicaid spending. "Even if we don’t choose to use tobacco, you’re paying for tobacco at an alarming rate of your paycheck every week."

"This is a serious problem we need to try to address," Johnson said.