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Amid Teen Vaping Boom, States Raise Age for E-Cigarette and Tobacco Sales to 21

Juul products, bottom row, are displayed at a smoke shop in New York, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.

Juul products, bottom row, are displayed at a smoke shop in New York, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Soon at least 11 states are slated to have higher age limits in place.

New York and Washington are on track to become the latest states this year to raise the legal age for tobacco and electronic cigarette purchases to 21 from 18.

The Democratic governors of both states—Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jay Inslee in Washington—are expected to sign bills approved by lawmakers in recent days. New York and Washington will join at least nine other states that have enacted similar measures since 2016.

Recent legislation of this sort has coincided with reports of a steep rise in electronic cigarette use, or vaping, among teenagers.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, last week signed a measure raising the age limit into law. The Arkansas law includes an exemption for members of the military and does not apply to people who have turned 19 by the end of this year.

In Utah, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill last Monday that would phase in a 21-year-old tobacco sale threshold by 2021.

Virginia, a state where the tobacco industry has deep roots, has gone down the same path—Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a bill imposing the 21 year-old age restriction in February with GOP support.

And, in Illinois, legislation that would raise the age for tobacco sales to 21 has been awaiting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature since passing the General Assembly last month. Pritzker’s office did not respond to an email asking if the governor planned to sign the bill.

Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts all previously upped the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21.

“I think it really has taken off this year,” Thomas Carr, national policy director for the American Lung Association said Tuesday as he discussed the recent state legislation. “I think it will become a nationwide standard of some kind.”

Carr notes that in addition to state legislation there could be action at the federal level.

Legislation Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced in the last Congress that called for prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to people under the age of 21 failed to go anywhere and did not attract any Republican cosponsors.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is advocating for what’s sometimes called “Tobacco 21” legislation, says tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and that about 95 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they turned 21.

John Wiesman, Washington’s secretary of health, in testimony to state lawmakers earlier this year, said raising the age for tobacco and vapor product sales to 21 is the "single most important policy" the state can adopt to protect the health of its young people.

He noted that one in six 10th graders smokes, vapes or uses tobacco and said most teens are getting tobacco and nicotine products from friends, relatives or others old enough to purchase them legally.

"Raising the age of sale to 21 is key to cutting off those social sources," he said.

The latest federal National Youth Tobacco Survey found electronic cigarette use among high schoolers surged by about 1.5 million more students, or 78 percent, from 2017 to 2018.

Electronic cigarettes and vaping products are covered by the measures that are now poised to become law or that have been enacted, Carr said. He suggested the rise in vaping among teens is a likely reason lawmakers are taking new action to up the age for tobacco sales.

“I think it really is a big part of it,” he said.

Juul, a top maker of vaping goods, has faced scrutiny as its products have become popular with teenagers. The company is now touting its support for legislative efforts to raise the age for tobacco product sales to 21, and endorses pursuing the policy at the federal level.

“JUUL Labs supports Tobacco 21 legislation wherever it is active,” the company says.

Washington state Rep. Monica Stonier, a Democrat, described earlier this year during a hearing on the bill there how she’d heard from her daughter about vaping going on at her middle school.

“It's very clear to me,” Stonier said, “that we are at a turning point and have to take action on this.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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