CHICAGO —Given the sudden changes to the legal age to purchase tobacco products and the temporary pulling of flavored vaping cartridges from retail shelves within the past few months, the reaction from stakeholders on both sides of the debate has ranged from heated to resigned.
In many ways, no one seems satisfied, with public health advocates saying the new rules don’t go far enough and major tobacco companies giving in to the tobacco buying age increase.
Here’s a cross-section of reactions ...
One retailer’s viewpoint
Generally, retailers seem frustrated, having to cope with losses in revenue on legal products. Anna Bettencourt, senior category manager for VERC Enterprises, Duxbury, Mass., also has to deal with the state outlawing menthol tobacco products in November. As of June 1, only over-21 smoking lounges can sell menthol products in Massachusetts, and further, customers will have to consume purchased products on-site.
“The loss of revenue we will be experiencing with the statewide flavor ban and restrictions on what you can sell and where you can sell it … means all retailers need to focus on new, emerging categories, as well as current categories with strong performances,” Bettencourt said.
On the issue of raising the minimum buying age, Bettencourt is grateful the competitive playing field has leveled. But she said the rule is still unfair to consumers. “If 21 is the age we feel people can make a choice about tobacco, we should probably look to change the age on many other things like joining the military, taking out loans and other types of contracts—maybe even the age people are leaving high school,” she said.
Alexandria, Va.-based NACS responded to both the increase in tobacco buying age and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) restrictions on flavored vape cartridges.
On the minimum-age increase, NACS officials said, “Given that the FDA has said that it is illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product to someone under 21, NACS urges all retailers to take the steps necessary to come into compliance. While there are unanswered questions about when the FDA plans to enforce this requirement and whether the agency can legally enforce it before updating its regulations, retailers should be aware that the FDA views any sale to a person younger than 21 as a violation of the new law.”
NACS officials have been in touch with the We Card Program Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization focused on age verification, and is working to order and print new signage. Until those updated signs are available, NACS recommends printing and posting signage in stores that indicates, “As of Dec. 20, 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided that the federal minimum age for purchasing any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, is 21 years old.”
Regarding the flavored vape developments, NACS officials said, “Unlike the initial proposal from FDA, the final guidance focuses on which products can and cannot be sold rather than the locations in which those products are sold. NACS has been a vocal advocate for the fair treatment of retailers selling tobacco products and strongly opposed the initial efforts by the FDA to permit sales of flavored e-cigarettes in retail stores that are considered adult-only, such as vape shops and tobacco outlets, while prohibiting them in convenience stores.”
Anti-tobacco groups express dissatisfaction
While claiming that the new rules on age of purchase for tobacco products and the temporary pull of flavored vape cartridges are a step in the right direction, health advocacy groups say the measures don’t go far enough to protect the public.
Matthew Myers, president of Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the flavor bans should have included menthol and e-liquids. “By leaving menthol flavored e-cigarettes widely available and completely exempting liquid flavored products, this policy will not stop the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” he said. “It is a capitulation to both (San Francisco-based manufacturer) Juul and vape shops and gives a green light to the e-cigarette industry to continue to target and addict kids with flavored products.”
Regarding the increase in tobacco-buying age, the Chicago-based American Lung Association published this statement: “Tobacco 21 is an important component of a comprehensive public health approach to reducing tobacco use. While tobacco 21 is an important policy, because the youth vaping epidemic is at an all-time high, there is much more work to be done to save lives. In addition to tobacco 21, we need to eliminate all flavored tobacco products, stop online sales and increase taxes on all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.”
Major tobacco manufacturers respond
For about a year, the major tobacco companies have supported raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products. “We believe the time has come to enact legislation raising the minimum age for all tobacco products to 21," Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group said on its website. "We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to address underage tobacco use, including reverse rising underage e-vapor rates.”
Altria officials said most underage youth obtain tobacco and vaping products through friends, family or siblings who are 18 and older. In addition, about 80% of high school students turn 18 before they graduate, the company said. “By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally,” officials said.
In a statement to CSP responding to the new minimum-purchase age, a spokesperson from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Winston-Salem, N.C. said: “We support the raise of the national minimum purchase age to 21 as an effective means of keeping tobacco products out of middle and high schools, where many youth obtain the products, especially vapor, from friends between the ages of 18 and 21.”
The statement said Reynolds, which is owned by London-based British American Tobacco, will continue its support and collaboration with We Card in its efforts to help retailers adjust to the national age requirement.
FDA acknowledges transition period
For its part, the FDA said it understood the need for retailers to transition to the new minimum age requirement. In said that on Dec. 20, 2019, the president signed legislation amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and raising the federal minimum age of sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 years. As a result, it is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product—including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes—to anyone under 21.
“During this period of transition, the FDA expects retailers to follow the law and take measures to ensure an individual purchasing a tobacco product is 21 or older, including manually checking IDs when needed," it said. “However, during this ramp-up period, FDA will continue to only use minors under the age of 18 in its compliance-check program.”
Regarding flavored vape cartridges, as of Feb. 6, the FDA said product must not be visible or made to appear to customers as if they are for sale. The agency said it understands that retailers need time to move products back to distributors or manufacturers.