Two years ago, Maine became the fourth state to pass a law raising the purchase age for tobacco products to 21. Today, 14 states have passed similar laws.
A push to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21 nationally has an unusual ally — Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader has long been a friend to the tobacco industry and his home state of Kentucky was long a major producer of tobacco.
Now, McConnell is championing a tobacco 21 law in Congress. Many are rightly skeptical.
Altria, a leading cigarette seller, announced its support for raising the tobacco purchase age late last year. “We believe … that now is the time to support federal legislation to increase the legal minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and to set a national standard,” the company’s CEO Howard Willard III wrote to the head of the federal Food and Drug Administration in October.
Much of the letter focused on e-products, a growing area of concern for youth tobacco use. Willard noted repeatedly that Altria was concerned about youth use of e-cigarettes, also known as vaping. But the tobacco industry’s approach to e-cigarettes, much like the impact these devices have on tobacco use, is complicated.
Beyond the youth market, tobacco companies see great potential to sell e-cigarettes to adults who are trying to stop smoking.
Increasing sales of e-products — and limiting state regulations on them — appear to be the ultimate goal of companies like Altria. And, the tobacco 21 bill championed by McConnell is a means to do this.
Because states set their tobacco purchase ages, federal legislation won’t actually raise the legal age to 21. Instead, the bill would require states to pass their own laws to do that. If they do not, they could lose federal funds for tobacco use cessation and substance abuse efforts, under McConnell’s legislation.
Longtime industry observers and anti-smoking groups warn that tobacco companies will use these state lawmaking exercises as a way to lobby against stringent regulations of e-products, especially the sale of flavored cartridges, which appeal to kids. Industry lobbyists are also pushing laws that prohibit local governments from enacting their own controls on vaping and to weaken enforcement mechanisms in bills aimed at reducing youth smoking, the New York Times reported.
Given the way the bill is written — and McConnell’s long history of helping the tobacco industry, which was chronicled in an investigative report by the Lexington Herald Leader — states would be better off to follow Maine’s lead and raise their tobacco purchase ages on their own.
Because Maine’s law has been in effect for less than a year (and it grandfathered Mainers who were 18 as of July 1, 2018), there is no data yet to measure its impact. But, research indicates a higher tobacco purchase age will reduce teen smoking and tobacco use.
According to a March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine, about 90 percent of smokers say they began before age 19. Raising the age to 21 would have a significant effect on high school-age smokers and potential smokers because their 18- to 20-year-old peers no longer would be able to legally purchase tobacco for them.
A decade ago, Needham, Massachusetts, became the first U.S. community to raise its tobacco purchase age to 21. The adult smoking rate in Needham is now half that of Massachusetts as a whole. The mortality rates from lung cancer in the community are significantly lower than in Massachusetts generally. Most important, a survey by the MetroWest Health Foundation found that the smoking rate among high school students in Needham was significantly lower than in surrounding communities, where the tobacco purchase age remained 18.
Federal action encouraging states to raise their tobacco purchase age is a good idea. It should not be weakened with cynical provisions that limit states’ authority to regulate tobacco products, especially those marketed to kids.