Editorial: Tobacco 21 law doesn’t do nearly enough

Published 6:25 am Tuesday, January 7, 2020


The Advocate-Messenger

You may have already seen the signs up at gas stations: It is now illegal to sell tobacco or e-cigarette products to anyone under the age of 21.

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The change was made by Congress and President Trump last month, but instead of it taking up to the maximum of nine months for the new law to have an effect, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented the ban immediately.

Some sellers of cigarettes and so-called vaping products were irked at the speed with which the new prohibition went into effect, but it’s difficult to sympathize.

They were making money by selling highly addictive poison to teens and young adults, helping hook them on harmful substances perhaps for the rest of their lives. When they complain that the new law went into effect before they were ready, it feels kind of like hearing a serial killer complain the police caught him before he could complete his plans.

But raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21 is not a silver bullet — it’s not even close. In fact, it could be worse for public health in the long run if tobacco and e-cigarette manufacturers are successful in convincing the public that this change means they are now sufficiently regulated.

Those profiting from recreational tobacco and nicotine products have been conducting a massive, nationwide youth-vaping campaign with zero regulation or limitation on their actions for years. It has been so successful, they have undone much if not all of the public health gains we realized over the last two decades by reducing the smoking rate and preventing kids from picking up the habit.

What the new federal law does not do is ban all flavored tobacco and nicotine products. Flavors are how producers get kids to try their products. Without the flavors, the products are too unpalatable and kids won’t use them enough to get hooked.

The FDA has banned the sale of flavors — except for menthol and tobacco — in “closed systems” such as Juul pods, according to reporting from Melissa Patrick with Kentucky Health News. But flavors are still allowed in different vaping products called “tank systems.” Patrick reported the FDA “says this concession was made to support adults who use e-cigarettes as (an) aid to quit traditional cigarettes.”

But Patrick also reports the FDA has found “limited evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for helping smokers quit.” And given producers and sellers’ ninja-like abilities to get their addictive products into the hands of kids any way they can, we’re betting “tank systems” will become the next big smoking thing for teens, now that that’s where the flavors can still be had.

We’re not opposed to raising the legal tobacco age to 21; we’re just doubtful it will have much of a substantial impact on its own, and worried it provides far too much cover from further regulation.

Tobacco and vaping companies have demonstrated over and over again that they are untrustworthy. They want people hooked, unable to say no to their products — and they don’t care about the harm done. They look at smoker or vaper hooked at 21, or 18, or 16, or 13, and they don’t see someone whose future health and financial wellbeing has been substantially harmed. They just see that many more years of profit farmed through addiction.

When the legal age was 18, it didn’t stop younger teens and even tweens from vaping — that’s why we have a vaping crisis (or financial jackpot in nicotine-industry terms?) among teens and young adults today.

Raising the legal age by three years could feasibly reduce the number of young adults who are able to buy nicotine-laced products and willing to share them with underage kids. But without more comprehensive actions, it will be an incremental improvement at best.

The nicotine industry understands that perfectly, but it’s betting the general public won’t. We need to make sure that bet fails. We need to keep pushing for more and better reforms. We need to remember that we’re talking about the future health and wellbeing of our own kids. We must tell our legislators that a problem as big as the one created by e-cigarette manufacturers requires far bigger solutions than the tweaks made so far.