Should a loophole allowing minors to purchase tobacco products online be tightened or closed?
Most states require a minimum age of 18 to purchase or use tobacco products, although 18 states and counting have raised the minimum age to 21. These states cross the political spectrum, including such red states as Arkansas, Texas, and Utah.
However, purchasing e-cigarettes online does not require any age verification under law. This allows for the skirting of state minimum age laws, which is problematic as e-cigarette use among teens reached its highest levels yet in 2018 — and possibly still rising.
What the legislation does
The Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act is bipartisan legislation that would mandate online age verification for sale of any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes. It would also require in-person age verification upon physical delivery.
The Senate version was introduced on April 30 as bill number S. 1253, by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The House version was introduced several months later on July 24 as bill number H.R. 3942, by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill does its part to stem a growing public health issue among today’s younger generations.
“We are in the midst of a youth vaping epidemic… We need to use every tool possible to prevent even more kids from starting to smoke,” Rep. DeLauro said in a press release. “Yet a loophole under current law exempts online e-cigarette retailers from federal requirements to verify the age of their customers.”
“Combined with industry’s deceptive and reckless marketing tactics, kids are easily able to obtain these products online,” Rep. DeLauro continued. “This is unacceptable, and it is putting our youngsters’ health at risk. That is why we need to… close this loophole and keep our children safe from the vaping epidemic.”
“Buying e-cigarettes online is one of the easiest ways for children and teens to get their hands on these harmful products,” Sen. Feinstein said in a separate press release. “E-cigarette use by middle and high school students is rising at an alarming rate, posing serious risks to their brain development and leading to addiction at an early age. Our bill would help curb that trend by treating e-cigarettes the same as regular cigarettes, making it much harder for minors to purchase them online.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the move would hit poorer customers harder and also make them more likely to use traditional cigarettes, which are more dangerous.
Some poorer people who are of age want to use e-cigarettes legally and would like to purchase them online, whether for reasons of convenience or geography. But they would be less likely to have “multiple levels of verification, the luxury of being able to plan ahead, the use of a credit card, availability of government identification and the ability to upload such a document,” University of Ottawa’s chair of the Advisory Board for Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics David Sweanor told Filter Magazine.
“If there really are many people addicted to low-risk nicotine, removal of the low-risk products they prefer virtually guarantees many will move to cigarettes,” Sweanor added.
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 13 bipartisan cosponsors: eight Republicans and five Democrats. The Senate version has attracted 14 bipartisan cosponsors: eight Democrats and six Republicans.
Previous House versions also by Rep. DeLauro, under the title Stop Tobacco Sales To Youth Act, were introduced in 2015 and in 2018. Neither received a vote. However, there are two key distinctions with the current legislation.
One is that both previous versions only had Democratic cosponsors, versus the current bipartisan cosponsorship. Also, that youth vaping and e-cigarette usage has increased dramatically since 2015, raising the importance and public awareness of the issue. (The 2018 bill was introduced in December, during the final weeks of the congressional session.)