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President Trump has signed a new law raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. For decades, Big Tobacco companies fought against raising the age. But recently, some started lobbying for the law to change. NPR's Merrit Kennedy explains why.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Raising the purchase age to 21 reduces underage access. That's why Juul Lab supports making 21-plus the law nationwide.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: This ad is from e-cigarette giant Juul. It's a change for the industry. Rob Crane, a physician from Ohio, would know. He's been campaigning to raise the minimum age for more than two decades through his group Tobacco 21. He says when they started pushing for firmer laws...
ROB CRANE: The industry hated this idea, and they used their very potent political lobbying power to stifle it in every state.
KENNEDY: Stan Glantz directs tobacco research at UC San Francisco. He says tobacco industry documents show why the companies objected.
STANTON GLANTZ: It's because it made it harder to market to kids.
KENNEDY: Because, he says, the industry wanted to get preteens hooked, and a marketing campaign for 21-year-olds would be less effective at doing that. Since the beginning of the Tobacco 21 movement, the industry has changed a lot. Now millions of teens are hooked on e-cigarettes, a source of massive public concern. University of Virginia historian Sarah Milov, who wrote a book about tobacco, says the industry is not always opposed to regulation.
SARAH MILOV: It will accede to regulation when it sees that it might be in its own interest.
KENNEDY: Health advocates are pushing for a more sweeping regulations, such as banning e-cigarette flavors. Milov says the big companies have likely been willing to accept the age limits...
MILOV: In order to take, you know, the public's eyes off of other proposals for addressing youth vaping.
KENNEDY: In an op-ed earlier this year, the CEO of Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA, said the FDA made it clear that the company may be in jeopardy unless it did more to address teen vaping. He said supporting age limits was the best way to ensure that the company can still expand its offerings for adults. The federal age limit comes after a rapid succession of new laws at the state and local levels. At least 19 states and D.C. have passed some form of 21 age limit, many in the past year and with the support of big companies.
But Glantz sees a familiar strategy from Big Tobacco. In this and previous fights, he says tobacco companies will aggressively lobby for bills that are weak or unenforceable.
GLANTZ: They tried to co-opt the issue and started pushing bad legislation.
KENNEDY: When NPR reached out, Juul and Altria didn't respond to these criticisms. Now the FDA will be in charge of enforcing the federal law. Crane, the longtime advocate for Tobacco 21, has questions about how aggressive it will be.
CRANE: We know that waiting for the FDA is kind of like waiting for Godot. They don't do anything; they bark but never bite.
KENNEDY: The FDA says it will release details soon about its plans. Crane says the law will do little to keep tobacco products away from kids and young adults if it's not enforced.
Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Washington.
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