Christmas week change to tobacco age limit left retailers scrambling

State law remains at 18 for now

Lucas Jackson—Reuters
Newport and Camel cigarettes are stacked on a shelf inside a convenience store.

RALEIGH — Those under 21 can no longer legally buy cigarettes, cigars or any other tobacco products in the U.S. due to a new federal law.

North Carolina retailers knew the change was coming after a bill was signed Dec. 20 by President Trump, but Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, which represents the state’s retailers, said the industry is typically given a few months to prepare for a change of this magnitude — but that didn’t happen here.

“Unfortunately, the FDA the day after Christmas came out with an announcement that surprised everyone that said, ‘No, this is effective immediately,’” Ellen told NSJ.

He said this sent retailers “scrambling” because they had to switch over their IT systems and their point-of-sale systems that are used to block sales for age-restricted products.

“The week of Christmas, trying to get your IT people to make that change, when everybody is trying to get that IT person to come in and do that work, is not really easy,” Ellen said. “It’s unfortunate that the federal government is so far removed that they don’t understand the operational challenges when they pass a law.”

According to a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, because the change simply increased the age limit in existing law, it was able to go into effect immediately. The agency has regulated tobacco products since 2009. It enforces the law partly through spot checks. Stores can be fined or barred from selling tobacco for repeat violations.

“The retailers I’ve talked to are working really hard to make the change. The last thing they want to do is break the law,” said Ellen.

His members had signs up saying they card for tobacco and listing 18 as the age. He said they had to remove those signs and quickly train staff on the new regulation and on dealing with angry customers.

“It also wasn’t very well publicized, so a lot of retailers had to take questions from customers who last week were able to purchase these products because they’re 18, 19, 20.”

While the federal law is now 21, Ellen said the North Carolina law is still 18, so law enforcement is not out enforcing the change yet.

“My understanding is that ALE, public health and those folks on the state level are not enforcing the 21 — they’re enforcing the 18 right now,” he said.

Anti-smoking advocates said the higher age limit should make it more difficult for young people to get tobacco, particularly high school students who had friends or classmates over 18 buy for them.

“This is a major step in protecting the next generation of children from becoming addicted to tobacco products,” new FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn tweeted.

The new law enacted last week by Congress also applies to electronic cigarettes and vaping products that heat a liquid containing nicotine.

The provision raising the legal limit from 18 to 21 nationwide was in a large spending bill passed by Congress and signed by the president on Dec. 20. About one-third of states already had laws restricting tobacco sales to people 21 and older.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.