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Altria's support for age 21 minimum draws mixed reactions

Altria's support for age 21 minimum draws mixed reactions

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Before Altria Group Inc. threw its support behind raising the national minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, there had been slow momentum building from states and large cities.

Six states — California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon — have passed laws mandating age 21. There are at least 350 municipalities that have done the same, including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York City, San Antonio and Kansas City, Mo.

However, similar efforts have been going nowhere in the Southeast, in particularly in states such as North Carolina that have major tobacco-growing sectors.

A bipartisan bill was introduced in the N.C. General Assembly in March 2017 to raise the smoking and vaping age to 21. House Bill 435 was sent immediately to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations and has not been acted upon since.

In July 2015, a federal study found that about half of adults strongly favor increasing the minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21. Another 25 percent said they somewhat favored the proposal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In March 2016, an Ivy League study found a connection between higher age requirements for purchasing electronic cigarettes and increased use of traditional cigarettes by youths.

In October 2017, a Yale University study found that states that have banned the use of e-cigs and vaporizers by people younger than 18 — including North Carolina — have experienced an increase in the number of youths smoking traditional cigarettes.

The growth in U.S. sales of e-cigs, particularly top-selling Juul, comes despite increased Food and Drug Administration scrutiny and criticism from anti-tobacco advocates about anecdotal reports on youths using the product, including while they’re in school.

The response to Altria’s decision was — as expected — mixed, depending on where the observer sat on the public health anti-smoking and anti-tobacco spectrum.

Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and an anti-smoking advocate, compared Altria’s support for raising the minimum age to 21 to the Alcohol21 campaign of the 1980s.

“That effort succeeded in reducing rates of teen alcohol use, and it likely reduced teen deaths,” Rodu said “Tobacco21 could similarly reduce teen tobacco use.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said in a statement that “Altria’s announcement will have little practical impact given their small share of the pod e-cig market.”

“It is not a substitute for mandatory FDA rules that apply to all e-cigarette manufacturers, including a ban on flavors that attract kids, and enforcement of the requirement for FDA review before new products go on the market.”

David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada and author of several e-cig and health studies, said that “restricting options for those who will otherwise smoke is a good move for Altria, consistent with the orientation the FDA has embraced, and a disaster for public health.

“Based on CDC estimates, more than 5 million Americans have now died from the inhalation of cigarette smoke since the FDA was given authority to deal with tobacco issues over a decade ago,” he said. “That fact should be, but isn’t, the subject of laser-like focus of the agency and those selling any tobacco or nicotine products.”

Gregory Conley, president of American Vaping Association, expressed disappointment with Altria’s willingness to take a self-regulating step with a legal product.

“If Altria believes it should stop selling flavors until the youth issue is addressed, maybe they should stop selling cigarettes until the death problem is solved,” Conley said. “Reynolds and Fontem Ventures are both owned by international companies that are unlikely to have any interest in setting precedents that could come back to haunt them in other markets.

“We are hopeful that the remaining companies targeted by Commissioner (Scott) Gottlieb in his senseless crusade will retain their backbones and not give up their right to sell legal products to adults.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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