Uresti files bills to increase smoking age, ban sugary drinks from public schools
AUSTIN — State Sen. Carlos Uresti filed health legislation on Thursday that would raise the legal smoking age in Texas to 21, ban the sale of sugary drinks at public schools, and stem the abuse of opioid drugs.
Uresti also filed bills that would allow online voter registration, provide assistance to pregnant teenagers and teen mothers in danger of dropping out of school; and prevent corporations from skirting payment of the hotel/motel tax.
Senate Bill 313 would increase the legal age to purchase, possess, or consume tobacco products in Texas from 18 to 21 years of age.
Uresti — noting that tobacco use kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined — said the state has an obligation to discourage young people from taking up a habit that is likely to shorten their lives.
“If we are serious about stemming the epidemic of tobacco-related diseases and the misery they cause, we must steer people away from the potentially devastating choice of addiction,” Uresti said. “This bill recognizes and takes advantage of a simple fact. The later one tries that first cigarette, the less likely they are to become a lifetime user.”
Conversely, according to studies, the earlier a child first tries smoking, the higher their chances of ultimately becoming a regular smoker and the less likely they are to quit. Research also shows that people who began smoking at an early age have a higher risk of contracting lung cancer or experiencing a range of risk factors and health problems in adulthood.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, some 24,500 adult Texans die each year from smoking, and 503,000 kids currently under the age of 18 will die prematurely from tobacco. Moreover, the annual health care cost of smoking in Texas is more than $5.8 billion, including $1.6 billion by Medicaid.
“By increasing the age for the legal purchase, possession, and use of tobacco to 21, we can reduce access to this deadly product, saving money and, more importantly, lives,” Uresti said.
Responding to the epidemic of childhood obesity in Texas, Uresti filed Senate Bill 317, which would prohibit the sale of sugary drinks in public schools.
Under the bill, drinks provided to students on school campuses would be restricted to water without added sweetener, 1% fat-content milk, fluid milk substitutions, 100% vegetable juice, 100% fruit juice, 0-calorie electrolyte replacement, or 0-calorie vitamin enhanced water.
Coaches would be allowed to provide students with any electrolyte replacement beverage after physical activity of at least one hour. The act would not apply when school is not in session, before the breakfast period, or after the last class period.
According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control, 15.6 percent of Texas children are overweight and 13.6 percent are obese. A separate CDC report said the obesity rate in Texas increased more than 80 percent over the last 15 years, making Texas the 12th most obese state in the country.
“Keeping sugary drinks out of our public schools will help children make better food choices,” Uresti said. “Good health practices should begin at an early age, but that’s hard to do in a society where sugary drinks are so pervasive. We can help by limiting access to these drinks in our schools.”
Uresti’s other bill filings on Thursday include:
Senate Bill 316, designed to curb the rampant abuse of prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Opana. According to the White House Office on National Drug Policy, prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem, and the CDC has classified the misuse of these powerful narcotics as an epidemic, causing 1.3 million emergency room visits in 2010.
Uresti’s bill stipulates that when a physician prescribes an opioid analgesic drug that incorporates a tamper resistant technology, no substitution or interchange shall be permitted for that drug unless the pharmacy verifies that the substitute provides substantially similar tamper resistance properties, or obtains the prior consent of the prescribing physician.
Senate Bill 315, allowing online voter registration in Texas. The bill would add voter registration to the increasing number of government services and functions available on line, making it more convenient for Texans to participate in the electoral process.
Under the bill, eligible voters could register online if they possess a driver’s license or identification card issued by the Department of Public Safety. For those who do not have such documents, a website would provide a convenient way to register that minimizes typographical and transcription errors by pre-populating the voter’s information on a mail-in card.
“Twelve states currently offer online paperless voter registration, and it’s time that Texas join them,” Uresti said.
Senate Bill 314, providing child care for teen mothers identified as high risk for dropping out of high school. Texas has the highest teenage birth rate in the country, a major factor in the dropout problem. One study showed that up to 67 percent of teen moms never obtain their high school diploma.
Uresti’s bill would permit existing funds to be to be used to allow teen moms to pursue their education, which would benefit the mother, her child, and the larger community as well.
Senate Bill 319, amending a provision in the tax code regarding exemptions from paying the hotel/motel tax. Under current law, individuals and corporations can escape the tax by renting a room for months at a time. The law has allowed energy-production related companies — particularly in Eagle Ford Shale counties — to avoid the tax by renting rooms indefinitely and rotating workers who are staying as guests.
Uresti’s bill would maintain the exemption for individual guests but bar the exemption to corporate entities.
“Communities in oil-producing counties are having a tough time with increased traffic, crime, housing shortages, and other challenges that came with the boom. This bill would allow them to collect the hotel/motel tax from long-term corporate ‘guests’ as the law intended and use the revenues to address some of these problems.”
Sen. Uresti represents Senate District 19, which covers more than 35,000 square miles and contains all or part of 17 counties, two international ports of entry, ten state parks, 51 school districts, almost 9,000 miles of highways and county roads, and more than 29,000 producing oil and gas wells. The district is larger than 11 states and 124 Nations, and contains almost 400 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.