HALEYVILLE - A spending bill signed by President Donald Trump Dec. 20, includes a section updating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, raising the national tobacco purchasing age from 18 (previously 19 in Alabama) to 21.
The new law is called the “Tobacco to 21 (T-21) Act,” as well as the “Tobacco-Free Youth Act.” Jumping on the bandwagon as advocates of the new law are vape makers Altria and Juul.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the sale of tobacco products, posted the following message on their website:
“It is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes – to anyone under 21. FDA will provide additional details on this issue as they become available.”
However, this law was passed so quickly it did not give retailers time to obtain updated point-of-sale signage nor the time to have the software for their registers updated.
That is if, indeed, the law is currently in effect. The law itself states the “final rule” shall not take effect no later than 90 days after the final rule has been published. Yet, the FDA says it is now illegal for the sale of tobacco products to those younger than 21.
“There is not a T-21 law in Alabama at this time,” Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told the Alabamian at the end of December. “There have been efforts to regulate tobacco at the state level before, but they have been unsuccessful. Finally, it was done federally.”
With these conflicting statements, the public, including retailers, have been left in confusion.
“We haven’t gotten any in yet,” Janet Steele of the Chevron on Highway 195 in Haleyville said regarding new signs. “I honestly haven’t heard anything about (the new law). I was told today (Dec. 26) about it.
“Until the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board tells us, we will continue to sell (to 19 and 20-year-olds),” Bill Shelton, owner of E-Z Mart in Haleyville, said.
Some local retailers believe the new law will only frustrate the affected customers, while retailers are left to deal with the consequences of the new law. However, retailers are agreeing to abide by the law.
“I don’t think it will impact my business any,” Steele said. “I think that it’s just going to make them try to buy it more. I think it’s not going to change the way the kids keep trying to buy it. It will just make it difficult on our end.”
Steele mentioned the store still gets kids who try to purchase tobacco “every so often.”
The ABC Board also sends younger people in to see if they get carded and to see if they are able to purchase tobacco products. Those retailers who do not card or make a sale to a minor are fined.
“They send them in and check us, too,” Connie Cornelius of Jolly Dan’s in Haleyville said. “We try to stay on our toes and not sell to underage (persons).”
Cornelius also explained everything tobacco related must be kept behind the counter. This includes rolling papers and tubing.
“I think the ones who are 19 are going to be mad and will get it somewhere. There will be some stores that know them and will sell, but we will not.
“If they’re not old enough, and you card them and won’t sell it to them, they get mad at you,” Cornelius added. “It’s not our law. We didn’t make it up. The retailers bear the brunt of it.”
The new law, sponsored by U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R), is favored by many in the country, including in Alabama.
“We strongly believe that raising the smoking age will reduce a number of people who start smoking at younger ages,” Harris said. “Generally, the younger someone starts, the more likely they are to be long-term smokers and the more difficult it will be for them to quit. We certainly support it.
“I think the concern we have is the tobacco companies jumped in at the last minute in support (of the new law),” Harris continued. “I’m anxious to see what the legislation actually states. There has been a lot of concern they would give in to the age limit change if they could pre-empt states from having any type of stricter regulation. For example, they’re heavily invested in making sure flavors for vaping are not banned, and they don’t want any local jurisdictions enacting more stringent anti-tobacco laws.”
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.