HARRISBURG – The new federal law barring tobacco sales to anyone under the age of 21 is stronger than the Pennsylvania law passed in November because it eliminates an exemption in the state law that would have allowed young adults enlisted in the military to continue buying tobacco products, said Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.
“The federal law doesn’t contain any loopholes,” said Sward, national assistant vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association. “That’s a huge thing,” she said.
Due to the federal Tobacco 21 law, the military exemption in Pennsylvania’s legislation “is no longer applicable,” agreed Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the state Department of Health.
The new federal law, passed Dec. 20, also took effect immediately, while the state law wasn’t supposed to be in place until July 1.
Because state enforcement efforts will follow the federal law, there’s no real need for the state to pass new legislation to mirror the federal rules, Sward said.
Tobacco enforcement compliance efforts by the state Department of Health receive funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and as a result, those compliance efforts will follow the federal law.
“We are in ongoing talks with the FDA regarding tobacco enforcement with the passage of the federal law, but all entities must abide by the law in effect,” said Nate Wardle, a state Department of Health spokesman.
The FDA has provided the Department of Health $9.47 million for tobacco compliance efforts since 2010, according to the FDA. The state’s current tobacco compliance program contract with the FDA took effect in September, according to information from the federal agency.
The state also spends a portion of the funding it gets from a settlement with the tobacco industry to conduct additional tobacco compliance checks. Last year, the state spent $872,335 of tobacco settlement funds on compliance checks, Wardle said.
The FDA funding covers a three-year grant period and every store that sells tobacco products must be checked in that period. Under the state-funded program, each store must be checked at least once a year, Wardle said. As a result, stores may get checked more than once a year, either because they’ve been identified as having previously sold tobacco products to minors or because they are getting checked from both the FDA and the state-funded compliance efforts, he said.
Stores get a warning letter after their first time caught selling tobacco products to underage shoppers. Fines start at $292 for a second offense within one year and reach $11,698 for a sixth offense within a four-year period, according to the FDA.
Advocates have pushed to get the age to buy tobacco changed to 21 to make it more difficult for teens to get access to tobacco products.
Almost no tobacco users report taking up the practice after the age of 21, according to Lung Association data. Ninety-four percent of tobacco users started before 21 and 81 percent before the age of 18. The Lung Association and other advocates have argued that raising the age will make it less likely that younger high school students will be able to get tobacco products from older students who had been legally allowed to purchase tobacco products, before the age was raised to 21.
An analysis by legislative staff of the fiscal implications of Pennsylvania’s Tobacco 21 law estimated that increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco products would lead to a 25 percent decrease in tobacco use by juveniles and a 15 percent decrease in tobacco use by adults under the age of 21.