Congress raises legal age for tobacco, e-cigs from 18 to 21

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Biggest sales restrictions passed in more than a decade

Congress has approved the biggest new sales restrictions on tobacco products in more than a decade, raising the legal limit for tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.

The move comes as concerns rise about teen vaping and tobacco use and its related illnesses and deaths.

The legislation would raise the minimum age to purchase all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21 nationwide, a step long sought by health advocates.

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The new law was attached to a $1.4 trillion spending bill designed to keep the government operating that was passed by the House on Tuesday. The Senate approved the bill Thursday afternoon.

Support for the bipartisan bill came from two unlikely backers: Marlboro-cigarette maker Altria and vaping giant Juul Labs.

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Tobacco critics contend the companies’ support is calculated to head off even harder-hitting government action: a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including fruit and dessert e-cigarettes. Their stance puts them in the unusual position of criticizing a move they long supported, arguing that the sales restriction isn’t enough.

But in the last year, Juul and Altria have emerged as the biggest supporters of the measure, blanketing Capitol Hill with lobbyists and advertisements touting their support for a national “Tobacco 21” law.

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The legislation has been attached to a package of must-pass spending bills that will keep the government running into next year.

“Altria and Juul clearly support this in order to argue that no other action is necessary,” said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “If you don’t eliminate the flavors that the industry has used to fuel the epidemic, you won’t solve the youth e-cigarette crisis.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable aerosol. Previous federal law prohibited sales of e-cigarettes and all other tobacco products to those under 18. But more than one in four high school students report vaping regularly, according to the latest government figures. And health officials have called the vaping trend an “epidemic.”

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Until September, Juul argued its sweet flavors — including mango, mint and fruit — could help adult smokers switch from traditional cigarettes to vaping. But the company dropped that message as President Donald Trump announced plans to remove virtually all vaping flavors from the market, due to their appeal to children.

The Silicon Valley company has halted sales of all but two of its flavors, menthol and tobacco, and pledged not to oppose Trump’s plan.

But momentum for the nationwide ban has faded amid pushback from vaping advocates and some conservative groups. And Trump has voiced support for alternative approaches to keep e-cigarettes away from kids, including raising the purchase age to 21.

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The age hike is expected to limit the supply of all vaping and tobacco products in high schools by putting them out of reach to 12th graders.

Myers’ group and other health advocates say Congress should raise the age limit and ban all “kid-friendly” flavors.

Even with most of Juul’s flavors off the market, smaller companies continue to market an array of flavored products, including “grape slushie,” “strawberry cotton candy” and “sea salt blueberry.” And the industry’s main trade association is suing to keep e-cigarettes, including flavors, widely available.

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Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, said it supports a “clean” Tobacco 21 bill — focused exclusively on raising the age limit — because it is the “quickest and most effective” way to address the recent surge in teen vaping. For decades, Altria and other tobacco companies aggressively defended the 18-year-old minimum purchase age.

The companies’ support sapped attention away from other proposals that would have gone much further. For example, a bill from New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone would have raised the purchase age to 21 and banned flavors from all vaping and tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes — and prohibited online sales. The bill was endorsed by a dozen health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.

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“Flavors attract kids and kids are the tobacco industry — including the e-cigarette industry’s — future,” said Erika Sward, a vice president with the American Lung Association.

But efforts to advance flavor restrictions in the Senate fell flat, including a bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, that was withdrawn from committee consideration at the last minute.

The logic for hiking the purchase age for cigarettes is clear: Most underage teens who use tobacco get it from older friends. An estimated 90% of smokers start before age 18.

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Delaying access to cigarettes is expected to produce major downstream health benefits, with one government-funded report estimating nearly 250,000 fewer deaths due to tobacco over several decades.

Still, anti-tobacco experts say age restrictions are only effective when they are vigorously enforced, and tobacco sales can fall through the cracks amid a patchwork of local, state and federal law enforcement. They point to underage drinking as an example of the limited impact of age-based restrictions.

State laws banning tobacco sales to those under 18 evolved over several decades and were reinforced by a federal law in 2009. The same law banned all flavors from traditional cigarettes except menthol, which received a special exception at the behest of tobacco lobbyists.

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More than one-third of U.S. states — including California, Illinois, New York and Texas — and the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum purchase age to 21. Anti-smoking groups have tracked the trend with measured support, noting the role of Juul and Altria lobbyists behind many of the efforts.

In several cases, anti-tobacco advocates have flagged provisions that they say undercut the state laws’ effectiveness. These provisions, known as pre-emption, can stop city and county officials from imposing stricter tobacco sales limits that go beyond the state law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.