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Bill in General Assembly could raise smoking age to 21 in NC

The bill would not affect current 18-year-olds

Students smoke and converse around the flagpole on the Lower Quad.
Students smoke and converse around the flagpole on the Lower Quad.

The bill, proposed last Wednesday by a group of four Republican legislators in the N.C. House of Representatives, would raise the legal minimum age to purchase and possess tobacco products by three years, through it would grandfather in people who are currently 18 years old.

Morgan Wittman Gramann is the executive director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, an independent coalition that advocates for wellness and the prevention of obesity and tobacco use. She said in an email that she supports the bill.

“Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and North Carolina,” Gramann said.

Nearly 80 percent of adult smokers begin smoking by the age of 18, Gramann said, and adolescents are especially vulnerable to nicotine addictions.

“Raising the minimum legal sale age of tobacco to 21 has the potential to significantly reduce the number of adolescents and young adults who start smoking,” she said.

Bills raising the minimum legal sale age of tobacco are being adopted in states across the United States and are extremely popular, Gramann said.

“With broad support among men and women and people of all education, income, races and age groups, it is very possible that this legislation will gain traction in North Carolina,” she said.

Gramann said there are some concerns with the bill, including the bill’s lack of funding for the enforcement of the tobacco use policy. The bill also allows for exemptions for full-time active military service.

Since funding is required to adequately enforce new regulations, she said she doesn’t believe the bill would be very effective.

Under the bill, purchasing or selling tobacco products, including cigarette wrapping papers, would be classified as a class 2 misdemeanor.

Many proponents of the legislation are current adult smokers, Gramann said.

A Senate companion bill is in the works that would reinstate North Carolina’s award-winning teen tobacco use prevention programs to prevent young people from ever becoming smokers, she said.

Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, said legislators intend for the bill to reduce smoking at a young age by preventing adolescents from accessing tobacco products.

“There’s a perspective that smoking is a detriment to people’s long-term health, and if policies can be put in place to reduce smoking at an early age, that may lead to less smoking,” he said.

Despite the importance of tobacco to North Carolina’s economy in decades past, Walden doesn’t believe this policy would have much of an effect.

“Tobacco, as an economic component of the state economy, has significantly receded in recent decades,” he said.

Walden said the bill could likely pass.

“Tobacco is not what it used to be, and there are other competing industries,” Walden said.

North Carolina’s state economy is now largely driven by industries like technology, pharmaceuticals, medical care and instrument manufacturing, Walden said — leaving the tobacco industry behind.

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John Biondi, a 20-year-old student at UNC, said he started smoking habitually when he was 18.

“I don’t think in principle (the bill is) a bad idea,” he said.

For Biondi, the age difference between current law and the proposal doesn’t matter very much — since he’d been smoking before he turned 18 anyway.

“Maybe it’s a bad decision, but I feel like an 18-year-old can decide that,” he said. “I think someone who’s going to smoke isn’t going to change their mind when they’re 21.”