In an effort to prevent young people from getting hooked on tobacco and nicotine, Maryland is raising the age to buy cigarettes, cigars and vaping products to 21, effective Tuesday.
“The goal is to make it as difficult as possible for our young people to have access to nicotine products,” said Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who sponsored the law, which passed the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year.
Under the law, the minimum age for buying tobacco and nicotine products jumps from 18 to 21. The only exception is for members of the military, who can still buy at age 18 by showing a military identification — a concession that anti-smoking advocates made to get the law passed.
An estimated 255,000 Marylanders who are 18, 19 or 20 years old will now be barred from buying tobacco products and electronic cigarettes, such as the popular Juul devices.
In recent months, health officials have worked to notify businesses of the new age limit and the requirements for tobacco sellers. For example, they must place signs with lettering of a certain size to inform customers of the new law.
There are more than 6,000 licensed tobacco retailers in the state.
Enforcement of the law focuses on those sellers, not on underage young people who might own or use the products. Retailers who break the law will get civil citations with fines that escalate with subsequent violations. Both state health officials and city and county officials plan to conduct checks at stores.
In Baltimore, the city’s Department of Health has a dedicated tobacco enforcement officer. That person works with young people who go into stores in an attempt to buy tobacco products underage, said Kamala Green, city’s director of health promotion and disease prevention. The city already has youths younger than 18 who help with the stings, and the city plans to partner with the police department to use cadets aged 18, 19 and 20 to check stores’ compliance with the new law.
In a typical year, the city does about 1,000 unannounced checks, resulting in about 200 citations.
Some businesses are repeat offenders, said Greg Sileo, assistant health commissioner for chronic disease prevention.
“Whether the age is 18 or 21, you’re always going to have responsible vendors and ones who aren’t responsible,” he said.
If a local health department cites a business repeatedly, the business can be referred to the state Office of the Comptroller, which issues licenses to sell tobacco. The worst offenders can risk losing such a license. In the 2019 fiscal year, the comptroller’s office didn’t revoke any tobacco licenses, but did issue 15 suspensions, ranging from five to 20 days.
At the 5th Street Food Market in Brooklyn, manager Senny Patel already placed a state-provided sign in the door that reads “21 or none" in large letters against a Maryland flag. He said his staff has been telling customers about the new law, and said at first, some customers don’t believe them.
“It’s going to be difficult for employees because people who don’t know, they might give them a hard time,” Patel said.
Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce said the company is “fully prepared” to implement the law at its Maryland stores.
“We are committed to being a responsible retailer and have comprehensive programs to ensure we comply with all requirements and prevent sales to minors,” she said in a statement.
At Weis Markets’ dozens of grocery stores in Maryland, employees already ask tobacco purchasers for proof of age and workers are planning to post signs provided by the health department, said company spokesman Dennis Curtin. All cashiers, managers and courtesy desk employees have been trained on the new law, he said.
Many retailers that once sold tobacco products have discontinued them in recent years, including drugstore CVS. Target stopped selling tobacco in the 1990s.
Other chains voluntarily adopted a minimum age of 21, including Walgreens, Walmart and Sam’s Club.
“We unequivocally acknowledge that even a single sale of a tobacco product to a minor is one too many, and we take seriously our responsibilities in this regard,” John Scudder, Walmart’s chief ethics and compliance officer, wrote to federal officials when the chain announced its policy in May.
Walmart also recently announced it would stop selling all e-cigarettes and vaping products, after earlier saying it would stop selling fruit- and dessert-flavored e-cigarette products. The company cited recent high-profile lung illnesses believed to be associated with e-cigarette use. Twenty people in Maryland have suffered from lung illnesses associated with vaping so far this year, according to state health officials.
Davis acknowledges the new Maryland age limit won’t stop all teen smoking. But he hopes that it will at least make it harder for young teens to get cigarettes or vaping products from older teens.
“We have all been young people before. Those who want to smoke, they’re going to smoke. They’ll come up with creative and ingenious ways to get around the law … But we’ve got to make it as difficult as possible,” he said.
Dawn Berkowitz, director of the state’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control, said it’s all about limiting the availability of cigarettes, and in particular e-cigarettes.
“A lot of high school students have access to someone who is 18, but less access to someone who is 21,” Berkowitz said.
Supporters of raising the age limit cite statistics that show the majority of adult smokers got hooked when they were teens and that teen use of e-cigarettes has grown exponentially in recent years.
E-cigarette use among high schoolers is at 27%, up from just 12% two years earlier, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many kids are being drawn by fruit- and candy-flavored products, the federal government says.
When Maryland lawmakers approved the age limit of 21, it was the 13th state to do so. Now, the total is up to 18 states plus the District of Columbia, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has been pushing for such laws.
“It’s important to get rid of the pipeline of tobacco products that get into the high schools and middle schools,” said John Schachter, a campaign spokesman. “If we can raise it to 21, then you remove most of the kids who have access to getting it legally in high school and who can pass it along to younger kids.”
With the tobacco and nicotine sales age rising, e-cigarettes are the next target of anti-tobacco advocates. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is pushing states to pass bans on sweet, flavored nicotine pods that teens favor for their e-cigarettes and vaping devices.
The FDA plans to take flavored products off the market and require companies to have them reviewed and approved before selling them. But Schachter, from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said his organization prefers a ban, and worries tobacco companies will fight and delay any federal rule.
“The flavor bans are going to be one of our big pushes,” he said.
Davis, the Prince George’s lawmaker who pushed the minimum age increase, said he’s ready to sponsor a bill banning the flavored nicotine when lawmakers are back in session in January.
“I believe it targets our young people,” Davis said of the nicotine products with flavors like mango and mint. “They’re not going to send the old people like me the bubblegum flavor. That’s probably not their marketing plan.”