Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age

Public health and anti-tobacco advocates are no longer facing fierce opposition from the tobacco industry in their push to raise the legal purchasing age from 18 to 21.

The reversal, prompted in large part by rising youth vaping rates, means tobacco companies such as Altria are now on the front line pushing “Tobacco 21” legislation in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill in an effort to stave off stronger regulations that could have disastrous effects on the industry, including bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products that are appealing to kids.

{mosads}“I think that’s what they fear more than anything else  Juul and Altria — is that, because of this horrible epidemic in our country, that legislators will restrict the use of flavors,” said Dr. Rob Crane, president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, which founded the Tobacco 21 movement.

He dismissed the recent move by the tobacco industry, saying, “This is, of course, a PR move.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says flavored e-cigarettes are directed at kids, and the agency has threatened to pull the devices off the market entirely if youth smoking rates don’t drop this year. More than 3.5 million teenagers said they used e-cigarettes in 2018.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that manufacturers of e-cigarettes also must seek FDA approval by 2021 to continue selling their products on the market and must prove their products benefit public health. Tobacco companies have argued that the products can help adults quit smoking cigarettes, but the FDA contends that shouldn’t come at the expense of another generation becoming addicted to nicotine.

In response, tobacco companies have joined the movement to raise the purchasing age to 21. Such measures have been pushed by anti-tobacco advocates — and were opposed by tobacco companies — for two decades.

But anti-tobacco advocates aren’t welcoming their adversaries with open arms. The groups argue that not only is the industry trying to slip harmful language into these bills, but it’s also framing the higher legal purchasing age as the be-all and end-all to curbing youth smoking rates.

{mossecondads}While such laws have been shown to be somewhat effective, the public health response to ending the epidemic needs to include much more, advocates say, such as bans on the sale of flavored tobacco.

“The industry is trying to position Tobacco 21 as the only thing that you need to do to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” said Vince Willmore, communications director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “And that’s definitely not the case.”

Altria, one of the largest tobacco companies in the U.S., and Juul, a leading e-cigarette manufacturer, recently backed measures authored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) that would increase the nationwide purchasing age to 21.

Spokespeople for Altria, which owns a 35 percent stake in Juul, and McConnell and Aderholt’s offices would not say whether they were working together on the bills.

But Altria praised McConnell’s announcement this week that he would introduce the measure in May.

“This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates,” Altria Group Chairman and CEO Howard Willard said in a statement. “Now is the time to move to 21, and we welcome Senator McConnell’s leadership on this important issue.”

Anti-tobacco advocates say they’ve seen this kind of action from the industry before.

“When the industry realizes they couldn’t win on something, they try to co-opt it, and that’s exactly what’s going on now,” said Stanton Glantz, a tobacco researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. “They’ve glommed on to the Tobacco 21 argument basically as a way to protect flavors to derail the real Tobacco 21 movement.”

Activists say tobacco companies have pushed states to pass Tobacco 21 laws that also ban localities from enacting stronger policies, such as those that prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco.

Similar bills are moving through legislatures in Arizona and in Florida and have already become law in Arkansas.

These measures come as more and more local governments consider bans on flavored tobacco. The San Francisco City Council approved a ban this month.

Back in Washington, advocates are worried that tobacco companies will succeed in inserting provisions into bills such as McConnell’s, which will be introduced next month, that benefit the industry but harm public health.

“I think we can be sure that whatever Mr. McConnell proposes, public health will not benefit, and our kids will not be well-protected,” Crane said.

“You can’t just cross out one number and put in another number,” said Crane, adding that raising the purchasing age needs to come with more changes.

McConnell, who hails from the second-largest tobacco producing state in the U.S., said Thursday that his bill is meant to address rising teen vaping rates.

“For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children,” he said at a news conference. “Unfortunately, it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country.”

Advocates are also concerned about language in Aderholt’s bill that they say would favor IQOS, a device manufactured by Philip Morris International that heats tobacco instead of burning it.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the provision would classify the device as a vapor product, exempting it from restrictions that apply to cigarettes, such as bans on flavors and marketing at sporting events and concerts.

“The bottom line is that Congress and state legislatures should pass strong, clean Tobacco 21 bills that don’t have special interest provisions benefiting the tobacco industry,” said Willmore, whose group supports Tobacco 21 legislation sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Raising the purchasing age to 21 is not a proposal that has traditionally had support from Republicans, another fact that has anti-tobacco advocates questioning their motives. Tobacco companies also haven’t traditionally supported Democratic-sponsored bills that raise the age limit.

Neither Altria nor Juul has voiced support for a bill introduced this week by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), former head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Their measure would increase the purchasing age to 21 and include a number of other restrictions that are a nightmare scenario for the industry, including a prohibition on the sale of all flavored tobacco products.

Altria said that while it supports raising the purchasing age to 21, other portions of the bill should be left to the FDA, which has the “authority and expertise to make decisions on these issues based on science and evidence.”

A Juul spokeswoman said the company is reviewing the bill.

Both measures come as Altria and Juul have increased their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and launched ad campaigns in support of Tobacco 21 bills.

Altria this year has hired lobbyists from five separate firms, and all are working on Tobacco 21 issues, a spokesman said. That comes after a year when 76 lobbyists from 27 different lobbying shops worked on behalf of Altria, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Altria also has an ongoing digital and print ad campaign focused on the Washington and New York City markets.

“We have the resources to run a sustained campaign and intend to do so. The campaign is in its early stages, but we anticipate continued spending to further raise awareness of the importance of this issue at federal and state levels,” an Altria spokesman said.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued proposed guidance last month that would limit the sales of flavored e-cigarettes to vape shops that ban sales to minors and stores that have separate off-limits areas for adults. The guidance also called for ensuring age verification for online sales.

Altria says it supports those changes, and Juul has stopped selling flavored e-cigarette pods to retail stores. It has also raised the minimum purchasing age to 21 for online orders and said it will use third-party services to ensure its online customers are at least 21 years old.

But the industry may need to do much more than that if youth smoking rates don’t come down.

“I don’t think they fully appreciate what they’re facing and the tsunami that they’re facing if we don’t get this under control,” Gottlieb said in March at an event hosted by The Hill.

Altria acknowledges as much.

“The FDA has made clear that the future viability of these products is in jeopardy unless more is done to reverse the underage e-vapor use trend,” the company wrote this week. “Raising the legal age to 21 is a pivotal step to addressing this issue.”

Tags Brian Schatz Diana DeGette Donna Shalala Frank Pallone Jr. Mitch McConnell Robert Aderholt

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