Mar 11, 2019 - Health

The growing push to raise the smoking age to 21

Illustration of a pencil case with pens, a ruler, and an e-cig coming out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A diverse and growing coalition is pushing Congress to raise the federal age limit for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21. It's even attracting some industry support, potentially as a way to help avoid a regulatory crackdown on e-cigarettes.

The big picture: Seven states and nearly 450 cities have already raised their smoking age. The change is gaining more steam in Congress partly due to the rise of youth vaping and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's aggressive response to that trend.

Where it stands: Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt previously proposed raising the age limit from 18 to 21, and there's a bipartisan push to try again.

  • “He will continue to look for bipartisan support for this uniformity as well as tightening age-verification for internet sales," said Brian Rell, Aderholt's chief of staff.
  • Gottlieb has also expressed support for the move.
  • Chatter on the subject is "all over the place," said Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "It is something we should talk about ... especially in the era of vaping and everything else. And frankly, in the era of legalized marijuana in many states."

Two big industry leaders Juul and Altria — are also on board. (Altria has invested in Juul.)

  • Raising the smoking age "is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates," Howard Willard, chairman and CEO of the Altria Group, wrote last month in an op-ed in The Hill.

Proponents' argue that plenty of 18-year-olds are still in high school, so they can buy tobacco products and pass them along to younger peers. But there aren't a lot of 21-year-olds hanging out with 16-year-olds.

The other side: There's plenty of resistance.

  • "I wouldn't do that," said Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Between the lines: Gottlieb's proposed restrictions on vaping products may have helped motivate the industry's engagement — but he's about to step down.

  • Whether Gottlieb's successor carries on with these regulations or not, raising the age may be a way to "get ahead of things," said Rep Tom Cole, a top GOP appropriator.
  • "I think some of the different groups that are involved in vaping and what have you are looking for do something without giving away as much as they thought they might lose," Cole added.

Go deeper: A surge in youth vaping is driving the FDA's crackdown

Go deeper