Prior to tobacco lobbying reform in the early 1900s, 21 was the legal smoking age in one-third of all states.
On Tuesday, February 5, the Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco and vaping products from age 18 to 21, and on Thursday, February 21, Governor Ralph Northam signed it into law.
The new law, which takes effect on July 1, 2019, will be the first change to Virginia's legal smoking age in 27 years.
The law explicitly includes “tobacco product[s], nicotine vapor product[s], or alternative nicotine products[s],” with a clear emphasis to include vaporizers, e-liquids, and e-cigarette devices. (Read more on this law here.)
Virginia, a state with historically lax tobacco regulations, raised the legal smoking age from 16 to 18 in 1991, where it has remained for almost three decades. Raising the age to 21 is the state’s most major change to ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) access in almost 30 years.
But it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.
Juul Pods of the Industrial Revolution: Contextualizing Minimum Ages of Legal Access to Tobacco in U.S. History
The year is 1890. The United States is still young. In light of the newly burgeoning temperance movement, a new, long-lingering demon has come to our attention.
In 1890, the average American’s tobacco consumption is 35 cigarettes per capita. Perhaps in response to this, states begin imposing age restrictions on tobacco consumption due to its disproportionate popularity with the youth.
That same year, 26 states establish laws banning the sale of nicotine products to minors. These age restrictions, called Mandatory Legal Ages of Access (commonly referred to as MLAs), vary from 14 to 21 years old. By 1890, 14 states have banned smoking to anyone under 21 years old. According to historical records accessed by the American Journal of Public Health, 21 was once the legal smoking age in one-third of all states.
Then, along comes our good friend Philip Morris. It’s the year 1929, and Philip Morris is producing his very first cigarettes right here in Richmond, Virginia. (Phil was actually pretty progressive for his time, according to his Wikipedia entry, which claims he racially integrated factories before it was legally required, took pride in his heritage as son of an immigrant, and was one of the first brands to market large-scale products to women — really too bad about the whole tobacco thing.)
Nonetheless, just as the temperance movement gains momentum and America undergoes a bizarre decade-long alcohol ban and frenzied public panic over the specter of Reefer Madness, paradoxically, the anti-tobacco movement of the late 1900s is withering under political pressure until it eventually begins to dissipate into public ambivalence, cultural amnesia, and then, at long last, status quo.
Camel Joe 2.0? Why This Is Happening (And Why It Matters)
If you’ve noticed the word “Juul” covered a lot in the media lately, there’s a reason. In December of last year, Juul Labs received $12.8 billion (yes, with a b) in funding from Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. This investment, which Silicon Valley Journal notes was “by far the biggest investment ever in a U.S. venture-backed company,” gave Altria a 35 percent ownership stake in Juul Labs.
The rate of vaping among high schoolers has nearly doubled in the past year alone, which is especially significant since we know that 98 percent of adult smokers start before age 26 and nearly 9 out of 10 adult smokers start smoking by age 18.
On Tuesday, January 5, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 67–31 in favor of HB 2748, a proposed bill that would raise the legal age for cigarette and vaping product purchase, consumption, mailing, and exchange from 18 to 21. The bill, proposed January 17 (we had this long government shutdown thing in between), was signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam on February 21.
Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, patron of the new anti-smoking legislation, told the Virginian-Pilot, “When I started, we still were dealing with smoking in the bathrooms, but the good news was that smoking had come down by the time I retired."
“Vaping growth is really so explosive," he said. I think it is (becoming) one of the top problems within school.”
The last time we've had such a high-stakes debate regarding tobacco legislation and influence on youth in society was the early to mid-1990s, with tensions high among the FTC, state law, and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, following its success with Camel cigarette mascot Camel Joe.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Madison Avenue-based Young & Rubicam Advertising Company introduced the cartoon camel into its national ad campaigns in 1987 as part of a rebranding effort.
The emphasis on rebranding could be compared to Juul's "modern"-styled ad campaigns. Both faced similar criticisms, and echoed similar disavowals.
''Joe Camel accomplished what Reynolds wanted, which was to give the Camel brand an identity that went from being 'your father's Oldsmobile' to something much more contemporary,'' Emanuel Goldman, a tobacco industry analyst, told New York Times reporter Stuart Elliot in 1997. ''He was a distinctive factor in the resurgence of Camel.''
Goldman disagreed with critics that claimed Camel Joe was trying to make cigarettes "cool" at the expense of intentionally promoting youth tobacco consumption. ''Children are the shield behind which today's censors hide,'' he said of the company's critics.
Others disagreed. After nine years in circulation, the cigarette-toking ungulate came under scrutiny from the American Medical Association, the Smokefree Educational Services, the Federal Trade Commission, and others for allegedly marketing adult products to minors.
The FTC declared success in its campaign against the character after voting in May 1997 to rule that the corporations behind Camel Joe had practiced deceptive, unfair advertising practices under federal law. The icon was retired from ad campaigns that year.
Parellely, JUUL Labs was served with several cease and desist letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year for allegedly marketing adult products to minors and violating consumer protection laws. The company is currently under investigation by several states including Massachusetts and California, and is also facing lawsuits in several states.
Many of the lawsuits are slow-moving, and some states are taking matters into their own hands by raising the legal age for accessing these products.
In addition to the new Virginia law, several other states, including Maryland, are debating similar measures. Utah and Washington are also considering raising the legal smoking age to 21. The law will take effect in Virginia on July 1, 2019.
Do you support lawmakers raising the legal smoking age in your state? Share your thoughts in the comments.