Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Minimum Age To Buy Tobacco May Soon Rise To 21 In Virginia

Jessica Hollingsworth, store manager at Kulture in Chesterfield, shows off a Juul.
Jessica Hollingsworth, store manager at Kulture in Chesterfield, shows off a Juul. Roberto Roldan/WCVE News

Walk into any gas station or tobacco shop and you’ll likely to find a variety of Juul vaping products.

At Kulture smoke shop in Chesterfield, the USB-sized nicotine vaporizers are one of the most popular products. Store manager Jessica Hollingsworth said customers like the Juul because it’s compact, easy to use and there’s a lot nicotine in each hit.

“Basically, you’re going to have your battery and you’re going to have a pod," Hollingsworth explains. "With the four pack of pods, you can pick whatever flavor you want, all of which are 5 percent or 3 percent nicotine. Literally take the cap off the pod, put the pod in the battery and then you pull.”

Hollingsworth said she sees a lot of former smokers coming in to buy Juul products. They are people who want to move away from traditional cigarettes, but still get their nicotine fix.  She says many of the customers are young people.

The growing use of vaping products like Juul by teenagers is the biggest reason why the General Assembly is poised to raise Virginia’s minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21. 

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who is sponsoring the proposal, said legislators hope to discourage young people from using all kinds of tobacco.

“The FDA has come out and said, you know, it’s the combustible products that are really, really bad," he said. "But now, the FDA is saying that these vapor products and Juul products are of epidemic proportion, so we are trying to control that as well.”

The use of traditional cigarettes among high school students dropped by more than half between 2011 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaping surpassed cigarettes in popularity in 2014. Last year, more than 20 percent of high school students admitted to using an e-cigarette.

Brian Donahue is with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. He says teens like vaping because many of the products are small and easy to conceal, and they taste good. 

“When these products came on the market they had them coming out in different flavours like bubblegum and things like that," Donahue said. "Obviously, who are you targeting with those? Not a 35-year-old man, you’re targeting youth.” 

Surprisingly, groups like the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have spoken out against this legislation. Tobacco giant Altria, who just bought a 35 percent state in Juul, is supporting the age increase.

If that seems confusing, it is. 

An Altria spokesperson told lawmakers last month that raising the age would make it harder for high school students who are 18 to sell those products to younger friends. Donahue and others are concerned this is more about good PR than good policy.

He said simply raising the age won’t be all that effective without better ways to enforce it.

“The bottom line, this an election year," Donahue said. "This is feel good legislation to take home and say ‘Look little Johnny and Mary, look what I did,’ but in reality they’ve done nothing and it’s really a cruel hoax.”

Opponents also say stricter licensing regulations for tobacco retailers and better training for cashiers would be a good start. 

Late last year, Juul increased the age to buy its products on its website to 21 and required the same of its authorized retailers. So stores could still legally sell Juul products to people under 21, but Juul could pull its products from their shelves.

At Kulture in Chesterfield, manager Jessica Hollingsworth says the policy has been somewhat effective at keeping younger customers from buying e-cigarettes. 

“There’s people calling for Juul pods, and we’re already like No we don’t have mango and, by the way, you have to be 21. They’re like ‘What are you serious?’" Hollingsworth said.

Pretty soon, tobacco retailers may be having more of those conversations. The measure is expected to pass the full legislature as early as this week.