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Few issues under new smoking age law, Carroll County tobacco retailers, enforcement officials say

Victory Vaporz sales associate Melanie Higgs, right, rings up customer Marie Deel of Manchester at Victory's Baltimore Boulevard location Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Deel, a former cigarette smoker who quit ten years ago, uses a vape that contains no nicotine. As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military.
Victory Vaporz sales associate Melanie Higgs, right, rings up customer Marie Deel of Manchester at Victory's Baltimore Boulevard location Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Deel, a former cigarette smoker who quit ten years ago, uses a vape that contains no nicotine. As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

A Maryland law that went into effect Oct. 1 banned sales of tobacco and vape products to people younger than 21, but local retailers — and even tobacco enforcement officials — say Carroll is well adapted to the new reality.

“It hasn’t really affected us any, 'cause most of the clients we deal with are adults anyway,” said Kevin Jones, owner of Victory Vaporz, in Westminster. In the vape world, he said, “More of your loyal clients are going to be 30-plus-year-olds that have switched from cigarettes to vaping.”

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And even some locations that catered to 18-, 19- and 20-year-old tobacco product customers have found that few people under 21 have tried to make a purchase since the new law went into effect.

“I think everyone is very aware of it. I haven’t had anybody come in that is underage,” said Besty Wagster, the manager of the Jiffy Mart on Main Street, Westminster. “I know my owner isn’t crazy about the idea of selling tobacco products to kids anyway. I think some owners were really happy about it.”

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Do we know, for sure, that vaping — or contact with secondhand vapor — is harmful? No. There simply isn’t enough data yet on this relatively new phenomenon. But we should absolutely err on the side of public safety. And on the side of making people feel comfortable out in public.

That was the idea behind the law, keeping younger people away from addictive nicotine products, according to Carroll County Health Department Health Educator Anne Grauel. Not just 18-year-olds, who she noted have brains that will continue to develop until their mid-20s, but the even younger people those 18-year-olds may socialize with.

“It is the hope with the law that it will limit the access of older high school students who could have, when they were 18, under the old law, purchased it and then provided it to the younger students,” Grauel said. “Most middle schoolers and high schoolers are not likely to encounter a 21-year-old in their day-to-day activities, where they would an 18-year-old.”

So far, the new law appears to be working as intended. In a compliance check conducted in November, just 13 of of Carroll’s 135 licensed tobacco or vape retailers sold to an underage person working undercover with the Health Department.

“We used somebody who was over the age of 18, and under the age of 21. We had quite a few volunteers actually,” Grauel said. “We did not give them a citation because the law was new and it was more of an educational experience.”

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Failure in future compliance checks will mean fines.

As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products, including vaping products, from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military.
As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products, including vaping products, from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

“Penalties would be $300 for a first violation, $1,000 for a second within 24 months, and $3,000 for a third within 24 months of the preceding violation,” said Barbara White, director of the Cigarette Restitution Fund Program at the Health Department. “What’s different now is we are citing the owner, where in the past it was always the clerk that was fined

. Now the citation will go to the owner.”

That change to fining the owner, rather than the clerk, could have two positive effects, according to White. First, it could make it easier to make fines stick, as it had proven difficult in the past to prove that the same clerk had violated the law on multiple occasions, and second, it may be more fair to young clerks who make a mistake.

In fact, the Carroll County Health Department successfully lobbied to make the new law less burdensome on clerks — and owners — by arguing that underage sales should be considered a civil violation, not a criminal one.

“You have a clerk who might be 17 years old and then they have a criminal charge,” White said. “That just seemed kind of harsh.”

Other aspects of the new law: There’s no “grandfathering in” of people under 21 — “The teenagers wanted to believe that, but there is not grandfathering,” Grauel said — and there is an exception made for those teenagers with an active military ID. If retailers decide they wish to sell to members of the military under 21 that is.

Victory Vaporz sales associate Melanie Higgs, left works behind the counter at Victory's Baltimore Boulevard location Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military.
Victory Vaporz sales associate Melanie Higgs, left works behind the counter at Victory's Baltimore Boulevard location Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. As of October 1, a new Maryland law raises the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, with an exemption for active members of the military. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

“The law never says anything about a right, it just says that a retailer may sale to them. The retailer can be more restrictive if they choose to,” Grauel said, and noted that many retailers, especially liquor stores, are telling her they like only having to worry about one age — 21 — to check for.

Those retailers who do make use of the military exception will only have until next summer to do so — on Dec. 20, President Trump signed a spending bill that, among other things, raises the national smoking/tobacco use age to 21, without exemptions for those in military service.

In the meantime, Grauel said, there are resources for those who would like to try and quit smoking or vaping, including resources targeted to younger users who find themselves newly excluded from legal sales.

“They can text ‘ditchjuul’ to 88709; that’s a free program from the Truth Initiative that provides help for quitting smoking,” she said. “They can call the Maryland Smoking Cessation support line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. That’s for either tobacco or for vaping, they will be directed to the resources they need.”

And for those wondering, nicotine replacement therapies are available for those younger than 21, and even for minors, with proper approvals.

“If they are over 18 they can come to the Health Department and we can provide that free of charge, along with counseling,” Grauel said. “We will help anybody over the age of 18 and younger if we have parental and medical permission.”

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