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Cigarette, vape buyers in Virginia may soon have to be 21, not 18

Coleman Wheeler emits a cloud of smoke from a vape pipe at a vape shop in Richmond on Jan. 18.
Coleman Wheeler emits a cloud of smoke from a vape pipe at a vape shop in Richmond on Jan. 18. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Young Virginians, raised amid a culture of tobacco and enamored of the newly popular vaping products, probably will have to wait to buy smoking materials until they turn 21 under a bill passed this week by the General Assembly.

The proposed law to raise the legal age from 18 to 21, rolled out by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who are alarmed by the rise in vaping, passed the House on Monday on a 66-to-30 vote. It passed the Senate Jan. 29 on a lopsided 32-to-8 vote.

“We certainly know the majority of kids in high school who are getting vaping products are getting them from older students,” said Del. Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a physician who was one of the House sponsors of the bill. The legislation “will get it out of those friends’ hands, which we think is a significant source . . . because once they’re addicted, we’ve lost them.”

The bill now goes to 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 requests for comment on whether he will sign the legislation.

America’s original tobacco state considers raising the legal smoking age

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report this week that 4.9 million middle and high school students were current users of some type of tobacco product in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017. Almost 21 percent of middle and high school aged students have tried e-cigarettes. Another study, published this month in the scientific journal JAMA Network Open, said young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to ­become smokers later, and many of them would not have otherwise used cigarettes.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about 11 percent of the commonwealth’s high school students use e-cigarettes and 6.5 percent smoke traditional cigarettes.

Under the legislation, someone under 21 caught buying tobacco products can face civil penalties of $100 for the first violation and up to $250 and community service for subsequent violations. Retailers who sell to underage buyers can face fines up to $500.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that while it supports raising the tobacco sale age to 21, it objects to the Virginia bill in its current form because it penalizes the buyers and lacks an enforcement mechanism to make sure retailers aren’t selling to underage buyers.

A spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said: “Anything that has a penalty for use we oppose. Kids are already victims of the tobacco industry.”

The bill had the backing of powerful legislators and Richmond-based Altria Group, one of the world’s largest producers of tobacco products, which also has a minority stake in Juul Labs.

Six states have limited sales of tobacco products to those under 21, and in Maryland, Democrats and the Legislative Black Caucus are trying to raise the purchasing age to 21, an effort that has failed for the past four years.

The District raised the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 last year and boosted its tobacco tax by $2 a pack, bringing its total taxes to nearly $5 a pack, among the highest in the country.

In other Virginia legislative action, an effort to reverse the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees and fines failed in a House subcommittee Monday after passing the state Senate.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) led a push to restore licenses to the 650,000 residents who have lost their driving privileges under the law, describing it as draconian, ineffective and punitive to the poor.

The bipartisan bill was backed by Northam, who allocated $9 million in his budget to replace the revenue lost from the reinstatement fees the law requires.

“The bottom line is that a large portion of the African American community is affected by this law,” said the Rev. Clyde Ellis of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Woodbridge. Drivers who are stripped of the ability to drive can’t go to work so they lose the chance to pay off the fines, he said. “We’re in a very difficult time in Virginia, when we’re being asked to give second chances to our leadership, yet we’re not giving the most vulnerable a first chance.”

An aide for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock), who voted to table the measure in subcommittee, did not immediately return a call for ­comment.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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