The idea of setting a tobacco age limit at 21 was fresh in Congress and as much a goal of public health groups as of the nation’s largest tobacco companies.
In August 2017, almost exactly a year after the repeal of Obamacare, Congressional action was at long last taking place. A group of tobacco companies, led by Altria Group, threw down the gauntlet, urging Congress to set the age limit for purchases at 21. “There is an existing body of scientific evidence that shows that if you delay initiation of smoking by one year, the probability of the likelihood of ever smoking cessation increases by about 30 percent,” Marlboro spokesman Michael Sargent told Reuters in a September 2017 interview.
“We need to make sure we are denying a huge, huge growth segment of people who will not give up if they are provided with these products,” he added.
On Dec. 10, 2017, a bipartisan group of senators pushed through legislation that was arguably the product of a battle that had been almost a year in the making. Called the “21st Century Cures Act,” the bill had been sponsored in the House by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and in the Senate by Mark Warner, D-Va.
A couple weeks after the bill was approved, President Trump quietly signed the bill, the culmination of a round of long-simmering efforts to block the influence of Big Tobacco on the federal government.
On Monday, New Mexico became the first state to do just that, signing a bill that requires purchasers of tobacco products to be at least 21 years old.
The issue, which had been bandied about in New Mexico, was raised in Washington years ago, and in 2009 — during the Obama administration — the bill was passed to set the age limit at 18. But the American Legislative Exchange Council, which many conservatives regard as a vetting board for major legislation, successfully lobbied the Obama administration to repeal it. And, just last year, the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank, successfully pitched 20 states to enact their own tobacco age limitations.
(Tobacco is already illegal under 18 for a variety of reasons. The growing number of 18-year-olds and their age limits has increased the chances that a teenager will start smoking.)
The New Mexico law, which will take effect in July, lowers the age from 21 to 18 on the basis that the change will help reduce the incidence of tobacco use and cancer and that the state “is aggressively opposing youth access to smoking products,” according to a joint statement from Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat. The statement said the age limit would also apply to the sale of e-cigarettes and vape pens.
The New Mexico measure is not the first time the question of whether a tobacco store owner would be forced to sell tobacco to a 21-year-old has been raised. In 2012, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the subject. Seventeen states have already enacted legislation setting a tobacco age at 21, although none have yet imposed the law as a county or municipality.
One of the things that is clear about tobacco in America is that it does not follow traditional laws of industrialized democracies. Americans are five times more likely to die from tobacco-related causes than citizens of any other industrialized country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Upton, who also sponsored the bill that got President Obama to stop allowing tobacco companies to buy up healthcare research companies, wrote in the Washington Post last year that the latest scientific evidence has validated the age limit at 21.
“Though tobacco use is associated with various health issues, including diseases and injuries, the evidence is overwhelming that delaying initiation of smoking by one year significantly increases the chances of quitting,” Upton wrote. “Targeting youth is particularly ineffective because, by the time they are ready to choose, it is often too late.”
A Verizon Wireless commercial that was released last year underscores the power that tobacco companies have in persuading a young person not to start smoking.