As marijuana legalization continues to sweep the nation, some state lawmakers are instead focusing their energies on curtailing access to a far more addictive and deadly smokable substance: tobacco. Over the last several weeks, Virginia’s House and Senate have passed bills that would raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and vaping products to 21, while Indiana’s Senate Health Committee recently advanced legislation that would do the same.
Declining cigarettes sales over the last decade have been seen by some lawmakers and public health experts as an opportunity to consider an end-game strategy to banish cigarette smoking altogether, starting with making them increasingly less accessible to teenagers and young adults. In 2016, Hawaii became the first state to raise the minimum smoking age to 21, and California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maine have all followed — as have over 100 cities and localities, including New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Hawaii is leading the pack once again with a new bill that would gradually, over a period of five years, increase the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 100 years old.
“The legislature finds that the cigarette is considered the deadliest artifact in human history,” states the bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Richard Creagan. “The cigarette is an unreasonably dangerous and defective product, killing half of its long-term users.”
The bill notes that Hawaii is “suffering from its own addiction to cigarettes in the form of the large sums of money that the State receives from state cigarette sales taxes, with the tax revenues recently reaching more than $100,000,000 per year.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. cigarette smoking rates sunk from 20.9 percent of adults in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2016. Cigarette smoking amongst teenagers is less than seven percent — an all-time low — but in just a year, the number of high schoolers using e-cigarettes surged by 78 percent, “an epidemic,” according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office. E-cigarettes, which turn tobacco into water vapor, don’t contain nearly as many harmful chemicals as those found in traditional cigarettes, and are a healthier alternative for adults who already smoke. But they’re not harmless, and teens who vape are just as at risk of developing nicotine addiction, which could lead to smoking cigarettes in the future.
Researchers with the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health reported that the rise in e-cigarette use amongst high schoolers coincides with skyrocketing sales for vaping products made by Juul. While the company has stated they are “committed to fighting underage use of vaping products,” including their own, one recent study found that teens are 16 percent more likely to use Juul products than older age groups. In an email, a spokesperson for Juul told Rolling Stone that the company fully supports all efforts to raise the purchasing age for tobacco — including their products — to 21. “Our secure website, JUUL.com, already requires all purchasers to be 21 and over,” the spokesperson wrote. “We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21.”
The bills being considered by lawmakers in Virginia and Indiana target all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, in hopes of curbing nicotine dependency across the board. The bill in Hawaii would only affect the sale of cigarettes.
Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Juul.