TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After paying billions of dollars to settle lawsuits about the dangers of cigarettes, the tobacco industry is engaged in another public-relations battle, one that is swirling in the Florida Capitol, other state houses throughout the country and in Congress.
The issue, known as “Tobacco 21,” focuses on raising the smoking age from 18 to 21, a concept that’s supported by the American Heart Association as well as a company many people blame for a teen vaping epidemic.
That’s where Big Tobacco comes in.
Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette maker, purchased one-third of e-cigarette giant JUUL Laboratories for nearly $13 billion late last year. JUUL’s exponential growth -- its market share tripled in just one year -- is linked closely to the skyrocketing increase in youngsters’ e-cigarette use.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb have been on a mission to eradicate teen vaping, which Gottlieb said is one of the federal agency’s “biggest health care challenges.”
The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed a nearly 80 percent increase in current e-cigarette use by high-school teens over the previous year. The survey also showed a nearly 50 percent increase for middle-school children.
JUUL is pushing the Tobacco 21 legislation, in part to keep federal regulators at bay. The FDA, under Gottlieb’s two-year watch, initiated a series of actions targeting the sales of JUUL and other e-cigarettes to minors, both in brick-and-mortar stores and online. Last summer, the agency also sent warning letters to manufacturers, distributors and retailers for selling e-cigarettes in packaging that resembles candy and juice boxes.
Anticipating that the FDA was going to outlaw certain flavored nicotine products to curb youth vaping, JUUL in November stopped selling fruity and dessert-flavored vaping products and shut down its social media sites.
The company has joined forces with other Tobacco 21 proponents, who say raising the smoking age has been shown to be an effective way to combat youth smoking. The proposal would also affect other smokeless tobacco products, such as dip.
“Tobacco 21 laws fight one of the largest contributors to this problem -- social sourcing by legal-age peers --- and they have been shown to dramatically reduce teen-use rates,” JUUL Labs CEO Ken Burns wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published March 20.
In Florida, bills (HB 7119 and SB 1618) are ready to go to the full House and Senate. While most components of the proposals appear to have widespread, bipartisan support, other provisions could put them in jeopardy.
The Senate proposal includes an exemption for cigars, an apparent attempt to win over votes by Senate Democrats, whose leader, Audrey Gibson, represents a district where Jacksonville-based Swisher International, known for its “Swisher Sweets” cigars, is based.
The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday approved the measure over the objections of the American Heart Association, which is no longer supporting the bill, the group’s lobbyist, Rivers Buford, told the panel.
“The cigar exemption doesn’t make a bit of sense,” he said. “It basically puts a hole right in the middle of the bill.”
Also, the exemption could be politically problematic for the House, because Speaker José Oliva’s fortune is based on a family cigar enterprise. Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, stepped down as CEO of Oliva Cigar Co., which was sold two years ago, after taking over as speaker.
Vape shop owners have also strenuously objected to the Tobacco 21 legislation, saying that raising the vaping age to 21 will hurt mom-and-pop businesses while helping the bad actors behind the e-cigarette epidemic.
The House bill, meanwhile, is facing pushback from the Senate for a provision that would raise the age for smokable medical marijuana from 18 to 21. Just weeks ago, lawmakers succumbed to Gov. Ron DeSantis and repealed the state’s prohibition against smoking medical marijuana.
Under that new law, children under the age of 18 will have to get a second opinion from a pediatrician before being able to smoke the cannabis treatment. Critics of the House plan to increase the medical-marijuana smoking age question whether DeSantis would support such a proposal. Others maintain that raising the age to 21 for smoking medical marijuana would violate the Constitution, and, if passed into law, would land the state in court.
And there’s another hitch for lawmakers from rural counties, particularly in the Panhandle: increasing the age to 21 for smokeless tobacco products. Concerned lawmakers are wondering what alternatives would be available to people under the age of 21 who are addicted to nicotine found in smokeless tobacco products but would be unable to vape.
Defending the proposal Tuesday, Senate bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called the measure “a major step forward” at keeping youngsters from getting hooked on cigarettes.
During debate on the House proposal last week, Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said the bill is about “access to a product that we know is harmful.”
Toledo, one of the bill’s sponsors, accused tobacco companies of “targeting our youth” with e-cigarette products that came in flavors like cotton candy.
“Our children don’t think there’s any problems with these products, and they’re using them, and they’re being sent to the hospital,” she said. “This bill can make sure that we keep our children and young adults safe.”