Raise the legal age for all tobacco products to 21

Raise the legal age for all tobacco products to 21
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Concerted efforts by political leaders, health officials, educators and manufacturers have driven underage use of conventional tobacco products to historic lows. Unfortunately, from 2017 to 2018, use of e-vapor products among high schoolers increased almost 80 percent and almost 50 percent for middle schoolers. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called this an alarming “epidemic” and said that more must be done. I agree. Now is the time to act. 

We believe that raising the minimum age for tobacco products, including e-vapor, to 21 is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates and in this we are aligned with public health and tobacco control officials. We believe this action will help preserve the harm reduction opportunity that these types of products present to adult smokers. 

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Young people under 18 most often obtain tobacco products through “social access," including obtaining products from other legal age purchasers. Approximately 80 percent of high school students in the U.S. turn 18 years old before graduation. By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student will be able to purchase tobacco products legally, adding another hurdle to help reduce social access.

Today, seven states, accounting for 21 percent of the U.S. population, have enacted laws to raise the legal age of purchase for all tobacco products to 21. Several other states are considering similar action, which we support. And we continue to have bipartisan conversations on Capitol Hill in support of federal legislation to raise the legal age of purchase. 

Why are we, a tobacco company, taking this stand publicly? FDA Commissioner Gottlieb’s recent call to action and the ensuing conversations have persuaded us that the time has come to take this step.

According to FDA data, more than 20 million adult smokers in the U.S. want alternative products that provide the same satisfaction as a cigarette, but with less risk. New and emerging technologies like e-vapor and heat-not-burn tobacco products offer tremendous promise in this area. We have long encouraged reduced-risk choices for adult tobacco consumers. That’s why we recently made a significant investment in JUUL.

But the FDA has made clear that the future viability of these products may face an “existential threat” unless more is done to reverse the underage e-vapor use trend. Put simply, we cannot continue to expand reduced-risk choices for adults unless we help curb youth access to all tobacco products, including e-vapor.

With the collaboration of the entire industry, regulators and policymakers, we are confident we can work alongside the FDA to address youth usage while simultaneously protecting the long-term opportunity for adult smokers to have access to products that may reduce their risk. We can accomplish both goals by raising the legal age for tobacco purchase to 21 without delay. 

Howard A. Willard is the chairman and chief executive officer of Altria Group, whose wholly-owned subsidiaries include Philip Morris USA Inc., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company LLC, John Middleton Co., and Sherman Group Holdings, LLC and its subsidiaries. Altria holds an equity investment in JUUL Labs, Inc.