Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill raising the federal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.
Rather than give retailers time to train staff, change signage, and prepare for the new legislation, the Food and Drug Administration said the bill would take effect immediately.
That means that state and local law enforcement officers should be enforcing the federal age requirement around the country.
But according to Ryan Sheahan, Public Health Madison & Dane County’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program Coordinator, that’s not the case in Wisconsin.
“Currently, local law enforcement cannot enforce federal legislation because it’s not adopted under the state statutes,” Sheahan says.
“So, in order for local law enforcement, or anybody, to complete investigations and issue citations if necessary of those that are selling to ‘minors’, which are now 21, the State has to adopt the federal language or adopt language into its books that put the age from 18 to 21.”
In a statement earlier this month, the FDA said it “expects retailers to follow the law,” but that it will only use minors under the age of 18 in its compliance check program during this transition period.
Brandon Scholz is the President of the Wisconsin Grocers’ Association, a trade association that represents grocers and convenience store retailers in the state.
He says the FDA statement leaves it to retailers to decide whether to comply with the law.
“[We told our members that] you can sell [tobacco products to those eighteen and up] until the State passes the law, or you can work to move to the no sale to under-twenty-one now and I think we’ve seen people gradually start to take that position,” Scholz says.
“I think the folks that probably will [keep selling to those older than eighteen] will be those that have a high percentage of their business on tobacco sales.”
So, what’s a retailer to do until state legislation passes?
Landon Meske is the general manager of Knuckleheads CBD & Vapes in Madison.
He says Knuckleheads is complying with federal law…but that it’s still selling smoking accessories to customers who are eighteen or older.
“If it contains nicotine it’s 21+, but as far as I’m concerned, everything else [in the store] can be used for CBD, which has no age restriction [and] we keep it to 18+,” Meske says.
“[It’s] just like a glass. If you sell a glass that has “Guinness” on it, you could put beer in that glass. Well, now, because of that I can’t sell that glass to someone under 21? That’s ludicrous. You could put anything in the glass. You could put milk [or] you could put orange juice. So, anything that doesn’t directly contain nicotine is 18+ [at Knuckleheads].”
Two bills introduced last fall, one in the Assembly and its companion in the Senate, that would establish a minimum age of 21 to purchase tobacco are currently sitting in committee.
Dona Wininsky is a policy expert with the American Lung Association.
She says even though this legislation has been introduced in the Wisconsin legislature, she’s unsure whether it — and related bills — will pass.
“The session in Wisconsin ends in a few months, so the time is getting very short to pass any kind of meaningful legislation. Some of these bills were introduced as much as a year ago, and haven’t even received a public hearing yet. So, those aren’t very encouraging signs,” Wininsky says.
WORT reached out to three tobacco product retailers in Madison earlier today; all three indicated they were complying with federal law.
The Wisconsin legislature will convene its next floor period next month.