Tobacco 21 to take effect

Vermont’s more than 900 tobacco retailers will stop selling tobacco products to individuals under the age of 21, after the passage of “Tobacco 21” legislation by lawmakers earlier this year. The new law was signed into effect by Gov. Phil Scott in May, making Vermont the 14th state in the nation to change its legal smoking age from 18 to 21.

Skyler Genest, director of compliance and enforcement at the Department of Liquor Control, said that means the department will be hiring 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to purchase tobacco products across the state, in an effort to ensure that the law is being properly followed.

“And if retailers aren’t doing that, we’re going to apply more education and resources to help them better understand the law, and better sell their products responsibly,” Genest said.

He said their data shows that most teenagers who use tobacco products and e-cigarettes get them from older friends, which isn’t that hard to do, since many 18-year-olds are still in high school. The hope, he said, is that by upping the threshold to 21, that option might become much more difficult.

“One of the strongest elements of Tobacco 21 is that is removes the social source from high school,” Genest said. “The theory is that the social circles of high schoolers are a little separate from the college-age crowd, so it will be more difficult for them to access the products.”

The Tobacco 21 legislation did not come on its own. It was accompanied by two other bills this year that share the intent of trying to reduce vaping rates among young people. The first, H.26, prohibits the online sale of e-cigarettes to Vermont customers, while the second, H.47, ensures that e-cigarettes are subject to the same 92% tax rate as other tobacco-related products.

Genest said they’ve heard some anecdotes about 18-t0-20-year-olds buying in bulk over the past several weeks before Tobacco 21 goes into effect, which he said there isn’t much anyone can do to stop. He noted that there was actually a similar spike in sales earlier this summer before the tax increase went into effect July 1.

“Between those two changes, we’ve seen a high volume of sales this summer,” he said.

Although vaping giants like Juul and Altria supported the move to Tobacco 21, both in Vermont and across the country, that was in part to head off efforts to increase taxes and regulations, like the measures that ultimately passed in Vermont. Although a few Republicans opposed the age-raising measure, citing concerns about personal liberty, given that 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military, it ultimately passed both chambers with overwhelming support.

Tobacco 21 is expected to decrease the rate of tobacco use among teens by 12%, according to a 2015 report by the National Academy of Medicine. That comes as vaping and electronic cigarette use is on the rise, with the percentage of high schoolers reporting e-cigarette use rising by more than 75% between 2017 and 2018, alongside a 50% increase in use by middle-schoolers.

Theresa Barrows, director of marketing for the department, said there has been a multi-pronged approach in marketing the change to retailers and consumers. She said the Department of Liquor Control has been in contact with the state’s liquor stores, while the Department of Education has led a more general informational campaign; the Department of Health has educated about the health aspects of the rule change.

But Genest said since having a law go into effect on Sept. 1 is far less common than July 1, a number of businesses have already made the switch. He said even after they cleared up the confusion, many retailers stuck with 21 to get their cashiers ready.

“I think that’s somewhat of a smart move,” he said. “It just gets the ball rolling earlier and helps prepare retailers.”