Up in Smoke: New Tobacco Laws Throw Locals for a Loop
The “born on or before” date is about to change in stores throughout Gillette and America, reflecting the age increase for legal tobacco sales which has many businesses stunned.
A recent and unexpected change to the legal tobacco purchasing age has left some local businesses, as well as the Gillette Police Department, concerned.
Federal legislation to amend the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 was passed on Dec. 20, 2019, as a grab-bag provision snuck into the $1.4 trillion-dollar federal budget bill. Presently, 19 states, including California, Hawaii, New York, and Texas, have laws in effect to prevent anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing or consuming tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, and e-cigarettes. All of the remaining states, including Wyoming, must now comply with the newly mandated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.
The trouble is that nobody seems to know when this law officially takes place because many stores have not been notified about the change but have instead read about it online or heard about it in the news. According to the FDA website, the new law took effect immediately on Dec. 21, stating that “it is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes – to anyone under 21.”
Confusion about when or how the law will be implemented extends to local law enforcement, who were also caught off guard.
Gillette Police Chief Jim Hloucal noted that the new law was tucked away within the recent spending bill and was not heavily publicized. Furthermore, he said, it was signed into effect without giving much warning to public entities like the local police force or stores that carry tobacco products. Hloucal said that he never even received official word on the changes taking place.
“I heard it on the news,” he said.
Johnathon Knight, a business partner at Hothead Vapor in Gillette, said he was a little shell-shocked by the news of the age increase.
“I found out about it three days ago on Facebook,” Knight said. The 18- to 20-year-old age group has been a large and critical part of the vape shop’s market, he said. Knight also explained that consumers 20 years of age and under are more apt to buy the “newest and coolest” mods and equipment, whereas those 21 and over generally stick to what they know and are used to.
Hothead Vapor has been on the receiving end of FDA and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) inspections in the past and anticipates it happening again soon given the recent change in legislation. In a recent inspection, he said, the FDA tested products in the store and required the vape shop to make some changes in their labeling to more clearly indicate the nicotine content in various products. Knight also said he sees another inspection coming, as the FDA will likely want to verify the store’s compliance with the new law.
Knight believes Hothead Vapor’s Spearfish, South Dakota location will feel the biggest impact from the age increase, given it’s a college town home to a large 18 to 20-year-old vaping demographic that is now being forced to quit “cold turkey.”
According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, “nearly 40 million U.S. adults still smoke cigarettes, and about 4.7 million middle and high school students use at least one tobacco product, including e-cigarettes.” The latter figure partially represents those young adults who were, until now, technically of legal age.
Chief Jim Hloucal holds out hope that a tobacco cessation program will be available to people who no longer fit within the age parameters allowing them to purchase quitting tools like nicotine patches or gum. Those products will now be available only to those adults 21 and over. Hloucal did mention, however, that he does not recall there ever being a time when a minor ran into trouble with law enforcement for being in possession of tobacco cessation products.
When it comes to issuing citations and enforcing the new law, Hloucal said the police department and city will be “in a pickle.” He explained that given the unexpected change in legislation there is no city ordinance in place yet. It could take as long as March before the ordinance is written, reviewed, opened to public comment, and enforced.
In the meantime, some local stores have already implemented the law while others are arbitrarily holding off until Jan. 1. Along with the abrupt change in legislation, the stores must now also go through the necessary steps of updating signage and branding materials to reflect the age increase. Corporately owned stores will receive new signage from their tobacco distributors at little to no cost. However, smaller, local shops like Hothead will have to foot the bill themselves. Knight anticipates that procuring new window film and signage for Hothead will get “very expensive.”
An employee of a local convenience store who wished to remain unnamed said the demographic for more traditional tobacco products like chew and cigarettes is so broad that the impact of the age increase could be large, but not necessarily detrimental to business. He also noted a positive: having one legal buying age across the board for alcohol and cigarettes will minimize the risk of accidentally selling to a minor. Behind-the-counter employees will now have to remember only one date when carding a customer.
Despite this positive feedback, many stores and consumers are still in shock about the recent changes and anticipate, along with a lot of confusion, a marked decrease in sales and plenty of nicotine withdrawals.