A bipartisan group of House members, led by Rep. Donny Lambeth, are testing the winds of socioeconomic change in North Carolina with a bill that would raise the smoking and vaping age to 21.
House Bill 435 has been sent to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations.
The bill covers all tobacco and tobacco-derived products, electronic cigarettes and vaporizers, and cigarette wrapping papers. It would take effect Jan. 1 if signed into law.
The bill carves out an exemption for active military personnel and contains a grandfather clause for those born in 1998 and 1999.
After Jan. 1, 2021, all consumers would have to be at least 21 to purchase those products.
Although raising the minimum smoking age to 21 may be a major challenge in a state with a deep tobacco heritage, there has been momentum toward such restrictions nationwide.
The legislatures in California and Hawaii raised their minimum age to 21 in 2016. There are at least 220 municipalities, mostly in Massachusetts but also in Missouri, New Jersey and New York, that have done the same.
Four states have raised the minimum age to 19.
HB435 mostly addresses the fines that brick-and-mortar and online retailers and wholesalers would face if caught selling these products to anyone under age 21. It also amends the punishment for those caught buying these products to individuals under age 21.
Lambeth, R-Forsyth, serves as a co-chairman of the House Health committee. He is a former president of N.C. Baptist Hospital.
The law has a practical and personal side for him, he said, since his mother died from lung cancer.
“When she started smoking at a young age, there was little warning about the risk of smoking to your health,” Lambeth said.
“Smoking in North Carolina represents the single largest factor in preventable deaths. Many older people who smoke started in their teen years. Many of them have told me they wish they had not even started.”
“Many other states are addressing this issue with teens, and it is time that North Carolina takes a stand to reduce preventable deaths from smoking,” Lambeth said.
At last count, 24 states, including North Carolina, had bills introduced in their current legislative session with a minimum age of 21 as the goal.
The legislatures in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa and Utah already have rejected their bills, according to Cigar Aficionado research.
The state senates in Oregon and Vermont have passed their bill, but the House has not acted.
Other states with pending age-21 tobacco products bills are Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.
Reynolds American Inc. has said states already can limit underage smoking by “implementing stronger laws banning youth purchase and possession, tackling the growing problem of illicit tobacco trade and improving enforcement of existing youth tobacco prevention laws.”
A total of 47 states, including North Carolina, have passed age restrictions on e-cigarette sales. Reynolds supported that law in North Carolina.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends a federal ban on selling e-cigs to people younger than 18.
“It’s generally a good idea to let adults make their own decisions, whenever possible, about permitting or restricting access to legal products,” said Mitch Kokai a policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
“As long as these tobacco products are legal, I have a hard time buying into the argument that adults from ages 18 to 21 should not be allowed to buy them.”
Kokai acknowledges that North Carolina “is much less dependent on tobacco money than it was decades ago, and years of in-migration of people from states more amenable to new controls on smoking have had an impact on the state’s policies.”
In July 2015, a federal study found that about half of adults strongly favor increasing the minimum age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Another 25 percent said they somewhat favored the proposal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An article on the report was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
About 11 percent of adults strongly opposed raising the age limit, while 14 percent somewhat opposed. The study was comprised of 4,219 adults who were surveyed online in 2014.
Shifting the minimum age to 21 could benefit society in several ways, said Brian King, deputy director for Research Translation in the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.
“It could delay the age of first experimenting with tobacco, reducing the likelihood of transitioning to regular use and increasing the likelihood that those who do become regular users can quit,” King said.
The CDC report was released four months after the federal Institutes of Medicine reported there could be a 3 percent drop in tobacco consumption by raising the age limit to 19, a 12 percent drop if the minimum age were raised to 21, and a 16 percent decrease if the minimum age were raised to 25.
The Institutes of Medicine report said raising the age limit to 19 “will not have much of an effect on reducing the social sources of those in high school.”
“Raising to 21 will mean that those who can legally obtain tobacco are less likely to be in the same social networks as high school students.”
The authors estimated raising the limit to 21 could result in 4.2 million fewer deaths related to tobacco use for those born between 2000 and 2019. They cautioned that “results from the models suggest that these results will not be observed for at least 30 years.”
The FDA requires approval from Congress on regulatory recommendations. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, many of whom have expressed a preference for less — not more — regulation of the tobacco industry.
“Raising the tobacco age will help counter the industry’s efforts to target young people at a critical time when many move from experimenting with tobacco to regular smoking,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It will also help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often obtain tobacco products from older students.”
Brian May, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, has said that “we believe states and localities should defer to this process and allow FDA and Congress the opportunity to think through this issue further before enacting different minimum wage laws.”
In March 2016, a second Ivy League study has found a connection between higher age requirements for purchasing electronic cigarettes and increased use of traditional cigarettes by youths.
Researchers with Weill Cornell Medicine, in a study published this month in Preventive Medicine, said lawmakers “should be cautious” in establishing the same legal purchasing age for electronic devices as for traditional cigarettes, which is age 18 in most states.
“We should regulate tobacco products proportionate to their risks, and e-cigarette evidence suggests they’re less risky products,” said Dr. Michael Pesko, an assistant professor of health-care policy and research.
“While recent statistics from the British government found that e-cigarettes are only 5 percent as harmful as cigarettes, they still carry health risks,” the Weill Cornell researchers said.
In October, 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 paper by Yale researcher Abigail Friedman, published in the Journal of Health Economics, appears to counter a prevailing anti-tobacco advocacy message: that e-cigs and vaporizers serve as a youth gateway to traditional cigarettes.
Scott Ballin, past chairman of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, said that no matter where the age restriction is set, “it will be critical that it is enforced if it is to be effective.”
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said a significant deterrent for many states in raising the minimum age is the loss of of tobacco excise tax revenue directly and from annual Master Settlement Agreement payments from the Big 3 manufacturers.
“With so many states experiencing serious fiscal issues, it seems doubtful that more than a handful will move forward with these proposals in the next few years,” Conley said.
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