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Health Groups Question Raising Tobacco Age to 21

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans a year, according to the American Lung Association. (realworkhard/Pixabay)
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans a year, according to the American Lung Association. (realworkhard/Pixabay)
February 19, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. — Bills to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and nicotine vapor products from 18 to 21 sailed through Virginia's General Assembly. But some health groups say the focus is in the wrong place.

The legislation has received overwhelming support from many including Governor Ralph Northam, a pediatrician who ultimately will have to sign off on whether or not to raise the age limit. Some health groups say, while they support the overall idea, they see several missed opportunities.

Ashley Bell, vice president for field advocacy with the American Heart Association, argued there isn’t enough enforcement of the current laws, and she would like to see the burden shifted to the sellers of tobacco products.

"We'd like to see that the adult in the situation, the retailer, have the responsibility and the burden placed on them for enforcement of this, not that a youth be penalized if they purchase the device,” Bell said.

Because of nicotine's addictive nature, Northam has said "the less minors that put that first cigarette in their mouth, the better." Bell agrees, but said there need to be more changes to the bill before it becomes law - including funding for education programs to help reduce youth tobacco use.

Other groups such as the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network also are opposed to legislation on Northam's desk. Bell said she thinks such an overhaul to current law should include a licensing requirement for retailers.

"We would like to see that there would be some sort of retail licensure for tobacco products,” she said. “So setting up retail licensure in a state allows for a much simpler implementation of a change like this, because this is a big policy change."

Bill sponsor Republican Sen. Tommy Norment of James City said while he understands opponents' concerns, the requests to make the suggested changes would be difficult during this legislative session. Many health groups, including the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, have expressed concerns over the rapid rise in E-cigarette use - up by a staggering 78 percent among high school students from 2017 to 2018.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - VA