Congress and the Trump administration are to be commended for their end-of-the-year teamwork to pass a historic public health measure — raising the purchase age for tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Future generations will lead longer, healthier lives because the political fortitude existed to make this overdue policy change.
Health advocates have long worked at local, state and national levels with varying degrees of success to raise the purchase age. Some Minnesota cities have passed measures, but legislation to make this change statewide failed to clear the Legislature last year. Powerful special interests, from the tobacco industry to retailers, have historically battled the measure, which makes the age change and the relative lack of controversy over it so remarkable.
Raising the age will make it more difficult for young people, particularly teens, from getting cigarettes from slightly older friends or from buying cigarettes at retailers with lax compliance policies. In turn, this will prevent them from beginning a lifetime of addiction to products that put them at a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and asthma, among other conditions. Research also suggests that nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco products, can harm still-maturing adolescent brains, impacting cognitive development or raising the risk of psychiatric disorders later in life.
“The tobacco industry has long known that over 80% of adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18 and the majority of them before age 16,’’ said Dr. Richard Hurt, a retired Mayo Clinic tobacco cessation expert. “If a person makes it to 21 without becoming a daily smoker, the odds are slim that the person will ever become a daily smoker.”
When the federal age change first gained momentum last summer, there were concerns that the tobacco industry would insert language to weaken the ban or restrict future regulations. But the measure looks to be refreshingly free of industry-friendly loopholes.
There’s some confusion about when the higher age requirement starts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken an admirably hard line on this. A spokeswoman told an editorial writer this week that the change went into effect when President Donald Trump signed the law on Dec. 20. “It is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product — including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes — to anyone under 21,” she said. There could be some lag time in enforcement and as the agency’s rule-making process catches up, but stores shouldn’t wait to comply. ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit whose mission is to reduce tobacco use, also smartly urges Minnesota legislators to pass “Tobacco 21” legislation in the coming session to align state laws with the federal regulations and update compliance checks to include 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.
Legislators also have the opportunity to strengthen the Trump administration’s new and disappointingly weak e-cigarette flavor ban. In September, after an outbreak of serious vaping-related hospitalizations, Trump vowed to take rapid action to ban e-cig flavors. On Thursday, the administration announced a partial crackdown. Pre-filled candy- and fruit-flavored cartridges for Juul and similar devices are prohibited, but tobacco and menthol pods can still be sold. Specialty vape shops with “open tank” systems that allow users to customize e-cig flavors can also still sell candy or fruit flavors.
If the intent was to deter young e-cig users, this policy has serious flaws. Mint is a popular vape cartridge flavor, and e-cig users can get the same cool sensation by switching over to menthol. Young users may also seek out sweet flavors in vape stores. Legislators should remedy these flaws in 2020 with a forceful statewide ban on all flavored tobacco products. The federal momentum is welcome, but there’s still work to be done.