When Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was presenting his bill to raise Virginia’s smoking age from 18 to 21, he delegated some of his time to a company he called “one of our most responsible corporate citizens.”
Jennifer Hunter, Altria Group Inc.’s senior vice president for communications and corporate citizenship, took the podium at the January General Assembly hearing to explain why the Henrico County-based tobacco giant was willing to give up some of its customers.
Even though young people can vote, pay taxes and serve in the military when they turn 18, Hunter said, the company had been inspired to act by then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call for a crackdown against a rising “epidemic” of teen vaping and e-cigarette use.
“By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally,” Hunter said.
At Altria’s request, the bill passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support. Gov. Ralph Northam signed it, making Virginia one of 17 states that have raised their tobacco sales age to 21.
The law takes effect Monday, forcing retailers throughout the state to adapt to the new rule and cutting off legal access to all tobacco products for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. The law, pitched primarily as a way to prevent minors from getting tobacco through 18-year-old friends, includes an exemption for active-duty military members 18 or older, who will still be able to buy tobacco and nicotine with a military ID.
The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which has some regulatory oversight over tobacco sales, recently mailed postcards to its 17,000 licensees notifying them of the change and instructing them to take down any signs referring to tobacco being available to anyone over 18. The agency was preparing to send an additional 2,700 postcards to establishments that sell tobacco, but not alcohol.
The policy shift comes during a time of transformation for the tobacco industry, once a mainstay of Virginia’s economy. Adult and youth cigarette smoking rates are declining, but electronic nicotine delivery systems — often portrayed as a less harmful alternative to smoking — are growing in popularity, particularly among young people.
Altria — which spent $12.8 billion last year for a 35% stake in Juul, a growing e-cigarette manufacturer based in California — says it shares policymakers’ concerns about keeping electronic nicotine products out of the hands of minors. To try to show its sincerity to that goal, the company has publicly pressed for state legislatures and Congress to raise the minimum age to 21.
Anti-tobacco advocates say they are worried the industry is moving to enact weaker laws to get ahead of more severe blowback that may come later, such as tougher restrictions on the sweetly flavored vape juices that are attracting a new generation of nicotine users.
On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the sale of e-cigarettesin response to spiking teenage use rates.
E-cigarette use among high schoolers increased from 11.7% to 20.8% from 2017 to 2018, according to a February report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For middle schoolers during the same period, e-cigarette use rose from 3.3% to 4.9%.
“Kids are trying these things because it’s easier. You can be sneakier with it,” said Art Raymond, the principal of Henrico’s J.R. Tucker High School, during a recent roundtable discussion on teen e-cigarette use. “It’s just a different pathway ... more insidious actually than cigarettes.”
The CDC has said e-cigarettes have potential as a safer alternative for adult smokers, but the health agency says the products are not considered safe for youth or young adults due to nicotine’s effects on brain development.
The Virginia bill drew some opposition from the vape shop industry, which raised concerns that it would hurt businesses and restrict access to products that can help people quit smoking, but Altria’s support helped it clear the General Assembly without much of a fight.
Avail Vapor, a Chesterfield County-based vape shop chain with 31 locations in Virginia and about 100 stores across the country, is working to notify its customers of the upcoming change through social media messages and new storefront signs, according to Avail marketing director Maggie Gowen. Though the company opposed the new law during the legislative session, Gowen said, Avail now supports raising the tobacco sales age to 21.
“We are in support of reasonable regulations,” Gowen said.
More change may be coming on the national level.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., held a roundtable event in Henrico on Monday to gather feedback on a bill he’s working on to raise the federal smoking age to 21. Kaine said he’s confident he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his partner on the legislation, can get the proposal to President Donald Trump’s desk this year.
“The progress that we made in wiping out youth smoking has been completely turned around because of vaping and e-cigarettes,” Kaine said.
At Kaine’s event, tobacco researchers, educators and anti-smoking advocates disputed industry claims that e-cigarettes can help young people quit smoking. Some participants voiced skepticism about whether the vast assortment of fruit- and dessert-flavored vape juices are meant to appeal to seasoned adult smokers instead of kids.
“A person who smokes Marlboro Reds for 30 years doesn’t quit to smoke sugar cookie,” said Zach Scott of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The FDA has signaled it may take stronger action to restrict sales of flavored products. Last year, the agency released a policy proposal that could force retailers to remove flavored products from areas accessible to minors and store them only in physically separated, age-restricted sections.
Kaine said he sees Virginia’s law as a “very strong step forward” while noting that his federal bill does not include a military exemption and would be enforced against businesses that sell electronic nicotine products rather than “youngsters” who have developed a habit.
Though several health organizations supported the Virginia bill, the American Cancer Society was a notable exception. The group told lawmakers its main concern was enforcement, arguing that a stronger system of licensing and fines for the businesses that sell nicotine and tobacco would produce better results than punishing kids for underage possession.
Under Virginia law, minors caught buying or possessing tobacco or nicotine products can face a $100 fine for a first violation and $250 for subsequent violations. Judges can swap out the fines for community service.
Retailers caught selling tobacco and nicotine products to minors can be punished by fines ranging from $500 to $2,500, but the law includes a provision allowing fines to be wiped clean if a business can prove it trained its employees.
Brian Donohue, Virginia government relations director for the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm, said the Virginia legislation allowed Altria to wear a “white hat.” But it would have been much stronger, he said, if it shifted more of the legal consequences to retailers.
“It’s a great legislative intent,” Donohue said. “But the actual regulations were terrible.”
Corey Foehner, a 27-year-old business student at Virginia Commonwealth University who started smoking when he was 14, said raising the minimum age to 21 is “probably a good thing.”
“It’s bad for you,” Foehner said. “Nobody should be doing it.”
Foehner, from Warrenton, said he’s tried to quit a few times. “But I like it,” he said.