Virginia moves to raise age to buy tobacco products

The law restricting the sale of tobacco products will go into e ect on July 1. (Photo by Erin Edgerton)

Serena Fischer, Capital News Service

Legislation signed by Gov. Ralph Northam Feb. 21 will raise the legal age for purchasing and possessing tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. It is drawing mixed reactions from young adults who will be affected.

On July 1, Virginia will join six other states in raising the tobacco purchase age to 21.

William Bechtle, a 20-year-old computer science major at VCU, said he believes it would infringe on people’s rights.

If an 18-year-old who is legally an adult wants to make the horrible choice to start smoking, they have that right,” said Bechtle, who smokes cigarettes. “If they don’t, then why is the age of adulthood 18 and not 21?”

Other young smokers do not seem to view the bills as a threat — simply an inconvenience.

“I can get older friends, people at that age limit, to get it for me,” said Katie Breighner, a freshman at Centreville High School in Fairfax County. “Regardless of your age, someone can find a way to get it.”

Some lawmakers also oppose the proposals to raise the smoking age, but not enough to derail the legislation.

The House voted 67-31 in favor of its bill, HB 2748. That measure was then referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. The Senate passed its bill, SB 1727, on a 32-8 vote on Jan. 29.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-James City. Thirteen Republicans and all 19 Democrats in the Senate supported the measure; eight Republican senators opposed it.

The House bill was introduced by Del. Christopher P. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. Forty-six Democrats and 21 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while 29 Republican delegates and two Democratic delegates voted against it. Among the opponents was Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania.

“I have no problem with raising the age to purchase tobacco products up to 21, but I think it should be done in a step process. Because there are, whether we like it or not, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who are using these products now,” Cole said. “While I applaud the intent of this legislation, I think it has problems.”

The legislation targets all tobacco and nicotine products, not just cigarettes. A primary goal is to combat the recent trend of teen vaping, which the U.S. surgeon general called an “epidemic.”

The number of teens who said they vaped in the 30 days before a December 2018 survey by the National Institutes of Health almost doubled from the same survey in 2017, including children as young as eighth grade. While some may argue that vaping is healthier than smoking cigarettes, many are unaware that one Juul pod — a popular method of vaping — contains as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.

That’s why students like Reem Alul view the legislation as a sign of progress. Alul, a biology major at VCU, hopes new laws will help curb youth addiction to nicotine.

“As someone who’s been smoking for over a year now, I know how addictive and toxic nicotine is to my quality of life,” Alul said. “Although minors will still have access to these products, it’ll be much harder to get a hold of it on short notice.”

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