RICHMOND — Some prominent legislators are backing a bill to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes and vapes from 18 to 21 in Virginia, a state where tobacco once loomed so large that images of the leaves adorn its stately Capitol.
Alarmed by rampant vaping by teens, a group of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate rolled out legislation last week targeting an industry whose roots in the commonwealth stretch back four centuries to the Jamestown Colony.
“Certainly we have a history of tobacco . . . that really dates back to 1608,” said Del. Christopher P. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a physician who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “We adapt as we move forward, and we recognize it’s something that needs to be done. We certainly are a product of our history, but I don’t think we’re bound by our history.”
Currently, six states and the District have limited sales of tobacco products to those 21 and older.
In neighboring Maryland, advocates have pushed unsuccessfully for four years to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21. The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland is trying again in the current legislative session.
Richmond-based Altria Group, one of the world’s largest producers of tobacco products, supports the Virginia legislation as a way to curb underage vaping, spokesman David Sutton said.
The company recently bought a 35 percent share in Juul Labs, the vapor company criticized by public health experts for creating a teen smoking epidemic. Altria has sought to portray vaping as a method of easing smokers off cigarettes, casting it as a “harm-reduction” product.
Altria, which was known as Philip Morris until its name change in 2003, has donated nearly $4 million to Virginia politicians of both parties over the past 20 years, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
“While tobacco use among persons under 18 is at historic lows, underage e-vapor use has increased alarmingly and [the] FDA has characterized this trend as an epidemic,” Sutton said in an email. “Tobacco harm reduction for adults cannot succeed without effective measures to reduce underage use of all tobacco products. The best approach to achieving this goal is simple: raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21. We fully support the Virginia legislature acting now to raise the minimum age.”
The legislation has backing from some of the legislature’s most powerful members, including House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
One prominent smoking foe on Capitol Square was quiet on the plan: Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatrician who as a state senator led a successful effort to ban smoking in Virginia restaurants. Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.
Cox said he assumes Northam will be supportive but had not had a chance to speak with him about it in the past week, as the bill came together just ahead of the filing deadline for the 46-day General Assembly session.
“We figured Governor Northam would be on board because that would be down his alley with being a pediatrician,” said Cox, a former teacher who expressed concern about tobacco use spiking among young people. “I’ve talked with Altria. They say they’re supportive. I had a direct conversation with them. So we’ll see how it goes. I’m pretty optimistic, but you know how this process works.”
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill have bipartisan sponsors. The chief co-sponsor of the House bill is Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne (D-Richmond). Norment is the sponsor of the Senate version, and Saslaw and Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) are co-sponsors.
Reeves, an Army veteran with some libertarian leanings, said he was “conflicted” about the issue and would like to see an exemption for those in the military. But he also said he was convinced that something needs to be done to curb vaping among teens, an issue he said he tuned into as he started coaching football at Riverbend High School last year.
“The amount of Juul products and vaping products is rampant,” he said. “It really is a crisis.”
Research shows that more than 90 percent of tobacco users started when they were minors.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about 6.5 percent of Virginia high school students, or 28,000, smoke tobacco, while almost twice as many — 11.8 percent — use e-cigarettes.
The District raised the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 last year and banned the use of chewing tobacco at Nationals Park and other sports facilities. Also last year, the city boosted its tobacco tax by $2 a pack, bringing its total taxes to nearly $5 a pack and making it one of the most expensive places in the country to smoke.