Tobacco 21 Fight Ramping Up in 2019

Legislation to raise legal age of purchase being heard across the country
Photograph: Shutterstock

LAKEVILLE, Minn. — According to the Tobacco 21 website, more than 425 cities and counties in 25 states have passed local laws that increase the legal age of purchase for tobacco and noncombustible nicotine products such as e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Not unexpectedly, 2019 has seen a continued effort to introduce and attempt to pass similar legislation at the state level, and rumors about it happening in Congress.

Make no mistake: Passing laws of this type at the city and county levels is much easier to do than at the state level. First, every state except Nebraska has a bicameral legislature, a committee process in both houses, and a central database where legislation and the legislative process is available to all in a timely fashion. Also, bill introductions are reported, amendments and votes are recorded and committee hearing schedules are posted with enough opportunity for interested parties to be heard. The National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) continues to oppose these bills and is making a serious effort to reach out and ensure that our voice—on behalf of more than 60,000 retail stores across the country—is being heard.

The 27 states that have had bills introduced this year to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii (to raise the age higher than the current 21 years requirement), Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia (passed into law), Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

Perhaps the most significant reason that that these bills prove to be a much higher mountain to climb at the state vs. local level is that all states tax cigarettes and most tobacco products and rely upon tobacco tax revenue to fund their governments. While some larger counties and cities (for example, Chicago and New York) may tax these products, most do not have legal authority to tax the products. Because states are required to balance their budgets, legislative proposals that result in less state revenue are generally more difficult to pass than other bills.

NATO decided through our internal committee and board of director discussions that the association would continue to oppose these bills because rather than necessarily reducing access to these products by minors, the bills are more likely to simply change buying patterns by adults. Additionally, adults should have the right to decide what legal products they purpose because they can join the military, marry or take out student loans for college, and make personal decisions about their healthcare.

These bills are not all identical and many can be distinguished from one another in looking at how they treat possession of tobacco products by underage persons differently. National surveys already demonstrate that more than 86% of underage youth acquire cigarettes illegally not from licensed retail establishments, but rather through social sources such as friends, family and even strangers. That number is even higher—more than 89%—for underage youth acquiring e-cigarettes. Retailers are committed to complying with the law and preventing underage access to tobacco products.

As states continue to consider these proposals, NATO will continue to work to ensure that the perspectives of retailers are heard.

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