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The sudden swell of support in Virginia’s legislature to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and nicotine vapor products from 18 to 21 achieved lift off Wednesday, with two bills comfortably passing their respective committees in the House and Senate.

The legislation received support from not only Altria, the Richmond-based tobacco giant, but also from a lineup of medical groups, including the Medical Society of Virginia, the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Virginia Nurses Association. Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician, has also endorsed raising the age.

In December, Altria bought a major stake in Juul Labs, a popular electronic cigarette manufacturer, and the federal Food and Drug Administration has scrutinized the union between the old tobacco giant and the startup, particularly whether they are living up to promises to try to keep the devices away from minors as vaping skyrockets among teens.

“Tobacco harm reduction for adults cannot succeed without effective measures to reduce underage use of all tobacco products,” David Sutton, an Altria spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “The best approach to achieving this goal is simple: raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.”

But not all health advocacy organizations are happy with the proposed legislation. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Heart Association have expressed concerns about the bills and oppose them in their current forms.

Representatives for both organizations said they support the idea of raising the minimum age to 21, but contend the process is being rushed in Virginia.

“The devil is in the details,” said Brian Donohue, the Virginia government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “It’s a great goal, but it’s backwards.”

They point to problems that already exist and which must be sorted out first before the state can successfully raise the minimum age. For one, the legislation as it is currently drafted continues a focus on penalizing youth rather than penalizing retailers, they claim.

“The youth access laws, the way they exist in Virginia now, are not strong enough to support the enforcement of raising the age, from our perspective,” said Ashley Bell, vice president for field advocacy for the American Heart Association. “They may not be strong enough to support the current age.”

The groups would propose that those penalties be removed altogether and replaced with a tobacco cessation or education program for those instances when someone under the age of 21 is caught for an infraction.

And they also think retailers should be subject to more oversight, particularly by requiring that all businesses wishing to sell tobacco products receive licenses to do so.

“It would have to be displayed at all times and it would require training for the employees,” she said. “They could have somebody who looked young go in and confirm they are actually checking IDs like they’re supposed to, and designating an enforcement agency that would be responsible for carrying this out.”

Bell also pointed to the fact that there are various definitions in Virginia’s code for tobacco, nicotine vapor and alternative products. Ideally the state would have one consistent definition for all the products before expanding the minimum age, she said.

“I have been reviewing bills from other states and one of the bills that I received for review was 35 pages because they’re trying to tackle it all in one,” Bell said. “I realize that does make a much heavier lift, it does, that’s why we didn’t come to the legislature with this idea. But we know the sponsors are well-intentioned, we certainly support what they’re trying to do, but we need a little bit more time to figure out the right way to do it.”

In an opinion piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Donohue noted that similar legislation in other states has proven more effective when they have strict enforcement through retail licensing and when the focus is not on punishing youth but on educating them about tobacco use.

“We’ve watched this across the states for years, we know what works and what doesn’t work,” he said, calling the bills proposed in Virginia “feel-good legislation.”

Each of the bills — one sponsored by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City and the other by Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach — passed their respective committees on Wednesday.

In an interview after his bill was heard, Norment said he understands the concerns raised by the two groups in that the legislation doesn’t go far enough.

But their requests would be tough to incorporate in this session, and he noted that he has supported efforts to require that tobacco retailers be licensed in the past, but they’ve failed.

“Virginia is not the most receptive state to government regulation,” he said. “I think this is an incremental step and it’s pretty significant but I don’t think the discussion is over.”

Vending tobacco

The legislation will also allow nicotine vapor products and “alternative nicotine products,” meaning “noncombustible” products like chewing or dipping tobacco that is “intended for human consumption, whether chewed, absorbed, dissolved, or ingested by any other means” to be sold from a vending machine.

The machine must have a notice stating that the purchase or possession of tobacco products by “persons under 21 years of age is unlawful” and be “located in a place that is not open to the general public and is not generally accessible to persons under 21 years of age.”

Under current law, tobacco products — but not vapor products —  may be sold from a vending machine if there is posted notice of the minimum age requirements and the machine is located in a place that is not open to the general public and not generally accessible to minors, a summary of the legislation says.

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Katie O'Connor
Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.