By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News
Alabama’s top health official is supportive of a nationwide increase in the legal age to buy tobacco products, from 18 to 21.
“We know that most people who smoke start smoking before age 21,” Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris recently told Alabama Daily News.
The new age restriction is part of a nearly $1.4 trillion spending package recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. It’s the biggest new sales restrictions on tobacco products in more than a decade, the Associated Press reported.
It raises the minimum age to purchase all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21 nationwide, a step long-sought by health advocates. Nineteen states in recent years have passed their own legislation raising the age to buy tobacco to 21. More than 500 cities and towns have implemented similar local ordinances. More than half the U.S. population is now covered by “T 21” laws, according to the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
In Alabama, the buying age has been 19. During the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers passed new restrictions on vaping products, essentially making their sales fall in line with other nicotine products. The new state law also restricted companies from marketing the products to minors and prohibited sales near schools, playgrounds, youth centers or parks.
Harris said that raising the age to 21 would be beneficial because some 19 year olds who can now legally buy tobacco are still in public schools and using the products around younger schoolmates.
“The later people begin smoking, the less likely they are to smoke forever,” Harris said. “We’d like to delay that first cigarette as late as possible.”
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board regulates tobacco laws. Spokesman Dean Argo said the agency doesn’t have a position on the increase the buying age. He said it would change slightly ABC’s minor operative checks, but wouldn’t have a major impact on agency.
Juul and Altria — the vaping company’s biggest investor — threw their support behind the bill earlier this year amid a backlash against e-cigarettes at the local, state and national levels. E-cigarette makers blanketed Capitol Hill with lobbyists and advertisements touting their support for a national “Tobacco 21” law.
Tobacco critics contend the companies’ support is calculated to head off even harder-hitting government action: a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including fruit and dessert e-cigarettes. Their stance puts them in the unusual position of criticizing a move they long supported, arguing that the sales restriction isn’t enough.
“Altria and Juul clearly support this in order to argue that no other action is necessary,” said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “If you don’t eliminate the flavors that the industry has used to fuel the epidemic, you won’t solve the youth e-cigarette crisis.”
In September, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb calling the vaping problem an “epidemic” and ordering manufacturers to reverse the trend or risk having their flavored vaping products pulled from the market, the AP reported.
“The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth and the resulting path to addiction must end,” Gottlieb said at the time.
The bipartisan legislation, supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was attached to a package of must-pass spending bills that will keep the government running into next year.