Congress could raise federal age to buy tobacco to 21 as part of spending bill

It's a bipartisan effort, but is not yet final.

December 17, 2019, 12:37 PM

Congress is considering a measure to raise the federal age to purchase tobacco to 21 as part of the massive government funding bill expected to pass by week's end.

The change would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to purchase vape products and e-cigarettes, as well as more traditional tobacco products, amid nationwide concern about increasing nicotine use among young people and the possible health risks of electronic cigarette products.

The measure does not specifically address or add more restrictions to black-market e-cigarette products connected to lung injuries and illnesses, thought to be the result of inhaling vitamin E acetate.

The language in the text -- a compromise from multiple recent bipartisan bills aiming to raise the legal age to buy tobacco, according to a senior aide close to the matter -- was compiled from bills coauthored by GOP Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Todd Young of Indiana, and Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Dick Durbin of Illinois and another bill introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

PHOTO: Cigarettes are pictured in a stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

If Congress raises the federal tobacco age to 21, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates tobacco products, would then have to determine if there will be any changes in how to enforce the new age limit. The spending bill gives the agency about six months to update its rules and regulations to require age verification.

Trump has previously said he would support raising the legal age to buy tobacco in response to the youth vaping epidemic.

Raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21 is expected to make it more difficult for high school students to access products containing nicotine because 21-year-olds are outside their social networks, according to a report commissioned by the FDA in 2013.

The change would lead to a "substantial reduction" in smoking among young people, according to the report from the National Academy of Medicine, and that by the time today's teenagers were adults it could decrease the prevalence of tobacco use by 12%, as well as decreasing health problems attributed to tobacco use.

"It's both a positive step and we have to make it a very important caution," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told ABC News Live.

"There's no question that by raising the age to 21 and then effectively enforcing the law we can both reduce the number of young people who use tobacco products, but also reduce the number of young people who use other products," he said.

But Myers said advocates have to be cautious that tobacco companies don't get off the hook for future regulations or enforcement, such as reducing or banning flavored e-cigarette products, which tobacco reduction advocates say are a big factor in attracting young people to e-cigarettes.

PHOTO: In this April 23, 2014 file photo, a man smokes an electronic cigarette in Chicago.
In this April 23, 2014 file photo, a man smokes an electronic cigarette in Chicago.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Multiple states have adopted laws to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, and Rite Aid have also said they will no longer sell to customers under 21.

Schatz has introduced legislation to raise the tobacco age every year since 2015 when his home state of Hawaii raised it to 21 and said in a statement the measure is a "big win for public health."

Vaping industry advocates have supported raising the legal age to buy tobacco amid criticism that e-cigarette companies targeted minors with marketing materials on social media and flavored products.

The Trump administration was set to ban flavored vapes and e-cigarette products earlier this year, but has since delayed any announcement of how it would enforce a ban and whether it would include all flavors, specifically menthol or mint.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Sen. Young is from Indiana.

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