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Bill banning local rules that limit tobacco sales advancing in SC House

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Tobacco products — cigarettes, "chew" and cigars — as well as e-cigarettes can now only be legally bought by people 21 or older throughout the United States, in the wake of an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina cities and counties would be barred from limiting sales of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes under legislation advancing in the House. 

A 15-7 vote April 6 by the House Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the House floor for debate. 

Advocates said they don't want local governments to create a mishmash of fees and rules across the state that hamper businesses and cut into state tax collections.

State taxes on cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products tallied nearly $146 million last fiscal year, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. 

Opponents include more than a dozen public health groups which have urged legislators to reject the proposal co-sponsored by both the chamber's Republican and Democratic leaders. 

"We urge you to … help prevent another generation from becoming addicted to tobacco products," reads a March 23 letter from groups including the S.C. Cancer Alliance and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

As amended, the measure grandfathers in any local ordinances enacted before Dec. 31, 2020. That would allow Myrtle Beach to keep in place its ban on sales of tobacco, hemp oil and vaping products within a 10-block section along Ocean Boulevard, if it survives a court challenge.    

It's unclear how many other local rules exist. Advocacy groups that represent local governments did not immediately know.  

“The idea is we establish a statewide standard and don’t have a hodgepodge of rules related to these products,” said state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia. “This is an attempt to get ahead on this issue so we don’t end up with more.”

Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said city leaders worked with legislators to preserve council's 2018 vote. 

"Myrtle Beach is a very unique city and sometimes a cookie cutter approach is not what is best for our community," she told The Post and Courier.

In January 2019, nine businesses sued Myrtle Beach City Council's decision to ban tobacco and e-cigarette sales in the city's entertainment district. They are allowed to sell their products as the lawsuit works its way through court, The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News reported.

Some lawmakers argued against carving out exceptions to legislation aimed at creating uniformity statewide. 

“If we're going to make a statewide policy, I think it needs to be a statewide policy and not grandfather in ordinances that may be legally suspect at this point,” said state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach, located just south of Myrtle Beach.

The bill does not affect local governments' ability to use zoning laws to regulate where tobacco businesses can locate within their borders.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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