April 23, 2019

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

Altria and Juul continue their blitz to undermine Tobacco 21

As I reported in a previous blog post, Altria (Philip Morris) and its sidekick Juul are blitzing the country trying to preempt effective Tobacco 21 legislation.  There have been two changes since my earlier posting: (1) The big health groups (Heart, Lung, Cancer et al) have unified behind strong legislation that includes meaningful enforcement and is specific in not preempting (taking away) the rights of localities to pass and enforce their own strong bills (but are still supporting bad bills in Washington and Texas), and (2)  Mitch McConnell, US Senate Majority Leader and staunch industry ally has announced that he will be introducing a national Tobacco 21 bill.   

In the States

The industry appears to have realized that they can’t stop Tobacco 21, so they want to make sure that strong bills don’t pass by pushing weak ones through that block further progress.  They have introduced such bills in 9 states so far.  Bad bills have passed in Virginia, Utah, Arkansas, time ran out on a bad bill in Nevada, and bad bills are pending in Iowa, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona are pending.  Louisiana started off a very bad, but the sponsor seems open to amending toward a better bill.

A key trick that the tobacco companies are using is to just change “18” to “21” in existing law.  The problem is that these old laws were written by the tobacco companies and their allies when they mounted their campaign to roll the age down from 21 (or older) to 18 starting in the 1920s.  These bills focused on “purchase.” The delinquent teen purchaser was bad, as was the incompetent clerk who abetted the kid’s “purchase.”  Indeed, the word “purchase” in the context of Tobacco 21 suggests that the writer is either naïve or working with the industry.

The Texas bill illustrates the serious problem of simply changing the age from 18 to 21.  Bill sponsors apparently did not realize that their current age 18 laws just weren’t working at all.  Texas statutes penalized kids and clerks while shielding owner/operators.  Now, legislative momentum has cemented the language.  Moreover, the Tobacco 21 bill’s sponsors abhor amendments fearing increased legislative friction.  So, it’s no surprise that Altria and Juul are delighted to join hands with all the health voluntaries and MD Anderson. 

In particular, if this bill passes: 

1) A youth who appears to be under 21 and who appears to maybe have a pack of cigarettes or a JUUL could be stopped and searched. 

2) Only the clerk suffers penalties for an underage sale.  These are criminal in nature, thus giving the clerk who makes minimum wage a potential life-long mark against employment.

3) There is no prescribed enforcement.  Complaints would go to the police whose “discretion” would allow arrest. 

4) There is no money for structured or regular enforcement.  Other than the FDA, no one enforced Texas law last year because funds dried up.  FDA cannot enforce 21.

5) There’s no suspension of license for rogue retailers (the only thing that gets the attention of the retail community).

6) Compliance checks are unrealistic.  Kids can’t lie, can’t look older, etc.

7) There’s a military exemption.  It’s a special privilege to become addicted, sicken and die prematurely that we should accord our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

The only thing that is missing from making this the perfect tobacco industry bill is that it doesn’t include preemption.  (Fortunately for the industry, there is a companion preemption bill in Texas that gives all control of commercial endeavors to the state – including plastic bags, fracking, tobacco sales … and maybe rolls back local smoke-free laws.)

According to T21 advocates, Washington and Texas are mostly the challenge of ill-informed bill writers. These bills were started 3 or 4 years ago when no one was paying attention to enforcement but the specialized T21 advocates.  Sponsors said to TFK, Cancer and Heart, “You supported this bill three years ago.  I am not willing to make it harder to pass by amending it and I expect you to support it now!”  That’s Washington and Texas – naivete and legislative momentum (but no preemption). 

In Congress

Mitch McConnell has said that he plans to introduce a Tobacco 21 bill next month.  While we don’t know what is in it, we do know that Altria has hired McConnell’s former policy director to lobby on the bill.

Pro-health forces, particularly in the House, as pushing positive legislation on Tobacco 21, but I would be happy if Congress stayed away from the Tobacco 21 issue because I doubt that any decent legislation could get out of the Senate, especially given McConnell’s position.

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