On December 20, 2019, President Trump signed must-pass budget legislation that included an amendment changing the Tobacco Control Act by increasing the minimum sales age for all tobacco and vapor products to 21-years-old (HR 1865, Section 603-604). In a statement posted on the agency’s web site, the Food and Drug Administration says that the change is effective immediately, but more details will be posted soon. What this means for enforcement is unclear. Most states have not enacted their own laws raising the minimum sales age to 21 and are only able to offer guidance to business owners that is consistent with current state law. We expect that many states will move quickly to enact conforming legislation, early in 2020.
While proposals to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products have been working their way through cities and municipalities for more than a decade, the number of such proposals has dramatically increased beginning in late 2018. In 2013, New York City – known for its aggressive tobacco control policies – was the first major US city to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vapor products to 21. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation that raises the minimum purchase age to 21. Presently there are 50 known proposals, with more on the way.
Advocates of Tobacco 21 (or T21) claim these laws will significantly reduce smoking initiation for adolescents and young adults. However, these laws also ban the sale of vapor products and other safer alternatives to smoking. CASAA’s position is that including low-risk alternatives in Tobacco 21 laws is unwise and likely to hamper the general public health goal of reducing the use of combustible tobacco products.
Consistent with CASAA’s mission, we support the principles of tobacco harm reduction as the most effective and humane means for reducing the harms attributed to smoking.
We believe if consumers are provided accurate information about the relative health risks of these products, in concert with their individual freedom to choose, many will opt for safer, low-risk alternatives to smoking. Empowering consumers presents a significant opportunity to vastly improve public health without resorting to coercive methods of control such as punitive taxation, comprehensive place bans, and excessively restrictive regulations.
In contrast, advocates of Tobacco 21 legislation have as their guiding principle the eventual elimination of tobacco and nicotine products from the marketplace. To this end, they promote the view that all tobacco and vapor products, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, are equally harmful. We believe it is never appropriate to mislead consumers about product risks in order to achieve a policy goal. Furthermore, as most youth obtain their tobacco products from a grey market, such prohibition only serves to amplify this problem without adequately addressing, or funding, enforcement efforts – efforts that often result in misdemeanor convictions that hinder young adults from achieving economic independence.
Accordingly, Tobacco 21 legislation, which treats all tobacco and vapor products equally under the law, sends the misleading message to consumers that e-cigarettes, snus, and other low-risk products pose risks equivalent to combustible cigarettes. Tobacco 21 laws treat young adults, who are capable enough to serve in the military, sign contracts, and elect decision-makers to public office, as incapable of making the distinction between risky and less risky behavior. And finally, Tobacco 21 laws represent a prohibitionist approach, which often results in limited positive outcomes compared to the harmful unintended consequences.
Although CASAA takes no position on regulations regarding combustible tobacco products, we strongly oppose Tobacco 21 legislation. We believe this policy will cause far greater harm than it prevents, and we urge our members to oppose it.