The Surprising Supporters and Opponents of Raising Virginia's Tobacco Age

Jan 31, 2019

 

A high school student displays a vaping device.
Credit Steven Senne / AP

 

A bipartisan push to raise the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 is hurtling through the state capitol in Richmond. Republicans are largely on board, as is the Democratic Governor.

But beyond that, support and opposition for the bill may not fall where you’d expect.


  

It was a hearing to discuss raising Virginia’s tobacco purchasing age, and lawmakers did as they always do. They asked if anyone in the audience wanted to speak in favor of the bill.

One of the first people to come forward was Jennifer Hunter with Altria.

The company has been a vocal supporter of the measure, which would apply not just to cigarettes, but also electronic smoking devices.

“Altria supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21,” began her testimony. “We believe it is the most effective step to available to begin reversing the rise of underage e-vapor rates.”

If you think that’s surprising, wait until you hear the opposition: The American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association.

Ashley Bell, with the AHA, says the fact that a tobacco company supports the measure should give lawmakers pause. She says raising the tobacco age doesn’t do anything to change lax enforcement.

“The youth access laws, the way they exist in Virginia now, are not strong enough to support the enforcement of raising the age, and in fact… they may not be strong enough to support the current age,” Bell said after testifying before lawmakers.

Both the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Heart Association would rather see more oversight, plus a strong licensing system for stores that sell tobacco, just like Virginia has for alcohol retailers.

That would involve training to ensure employees know how to properly ID. And if a retailer was caught selling to underage users their license could be revoked.

In a recently penned op-ed, Brian Donohue with ACS CAN says steps like that have had greater impact in other states. He called raising the purchasing age a “feel good” measure.

“We know that the sponsors are well intentioned, and we certainly support what they’re trying to do,” said Ashley Bell. “ But we need a little bit more time to figure out the right way to do it.”

People were taking hits off of their JUUL and exhaling the vapor into their backpack while the teacher wasn't looking.

Republican Delegate Chris Stolle is sponsoring the legislation in the House. He says perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good, and there isn’t time to wait.

With the rapid spread of vaping among kids, Stolle claims even a single year can make a difference.

“We just saw a recent report by the Surgeon General that indicated that there was almost a doubling of the use in middle and high schools. And they used the term epidemic,” said Stolle.

Many younger students get JUULs, a name brand e-cigarette, from older siblings or friends. About 80-percent of Virginia’s graduating seniors are 18. Supporters say raising the tobacco age to 21 would make it less likely the small devices will pop up in schools.

Will Kubzansky is a senior and student journalist. He doesn’t smoke himself, but for his school paper he surveyed more than fifty classmates about their smoking habits.

“It was happening everywhere, in the bathroom, and on busses, and then the other thing I learned was that people were taking hits off of their JUUL and exhaling the vapor into their backpack while the teacher wasn’t looking,” said Kubzansky.

Kubzansky does think raising the purchasing age could help, but adds that the real problem is the product itself. A tiny USB shaped device that doesn’t produce smoke.

 

“When it’s, you know, incredibly easy to conceal from a teacher and then the flavors, when you’re able to vape in mango or creme brulee, then it makes it even more appealing to kids,” he said.

JUUL recently halted the production of those flavors. But Kubzansky says that when there’s a product with a potent hit and an addictive high teenagers are going to want it, and they’re going to get their hands on it.

Altria recently bought a $13 billion stake in JUUL Labs.

 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.