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Congress Aims to Raise Minimum Age for Smoking, Vaping to 21

By Evie Blad — December 16, 2019 4 min read
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The minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products—including e-cigarettes and other vaping products—would be raised from 18 to 21 a set of compromise spending bill Congress is poised to consider this week.

The legislation would also increase funding for the U.S. Department of Education, and it includes several measures of interest to educators, including $25 million for research of gun violence, which hasn’t received federal funding since the 1990s.

Raising the tobacco purchase age would help address longstanding concerns about youth smoking and an emerging epidemic that has hit schools hard: skyrocketing student use of vaping products like Juul, supporters argue.

But because many young users already fall below minimum purchasing ages, buying their products from peers and so-called “straw purchasers,” the new policy is unlikely to address the problem entirely. But a 2015 study commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration and cited by anti-smoking groups found raising the age could cause a significant decrease in the number of minors who start smoking between ages 15-17.

As such proposals have gained steam, some prevention groups have been concerned about adequate enforcement. Some have also suggested that the vaping industry’s support for increasing the minimum purchase age is part of an effort to avoid further regulation, like President Donald Trump’s unfulfilled promise to clamp down on the sales of flavored products popular with teens.

“While a positive step, raising the tobacco age to 21 will not stop the youth e-cigarette epidemic and is not a substitute for prohibiting the flavored e-cigs that are luring and addicting our kids,” the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids tweeted Monday.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already set their smoking age at 21, according to the American Lung Association.

A diverse group of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., have pushed to raise the age nationwide. Such proposals have also been supported by education groups, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

If enacted, the bill, which includes funding for a host of federal agencies, would amend the the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to raise the minimum purchase age for “tobacco products” to 21, and it would require states to change their laws. Under the FDA’s definition, tobacco products include electronic nicotine devices, which are used for vaping. The bill would require new regulations to be created within 180 days and enacted within 90 days after they are published. Federal officials would also provide technical support to states in making the transition.

The spending package would provide $72.8 billion in discretionary funding for the U.S. Department of Education for Fiscal 2020. That’s $1.3 billion above the 2019 levels and $8.7 billion above President Trump’s budget proposal. Included in that funding:

  • Title I, the program for schools with high enrollments of students from low-income families, would receive about $16.3 billion, a $450 million increase above current levels.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants to states for special education programs would receive about $12.8 billion, which is a $400 million increase above current levels.
  • Title IV, Student Support and Academic Enrichment State Grants would be funded at $1.2 billion, a $40 million increase.
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers would receive $1.2 billion, a $28 million increase, and the program would be renamed Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers after Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chair of the House appropriations committee.
  • A package of “whole child” initiatives would receive a collective $123 million in new funding. That includes funds for the Education Innovation and Research program to study students’ social-emotional development, new money for teaching training in the Supporting Effective Educator Development grants, new money for mental health initiatives in the School Safety National Activities program, and an increase for the Full-Service Community Schools program. House Democrats had previously proposed $260 million in new spending for those programs.
  • The Special Olympics would receive about $20.1 million, an increase of $2.5 million above current levels. Trump’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget notably proposed cutting the funding entirely, which led to a testy congressional hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The spending proposal also covers the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which funds several programs relevant to education. Among them:

  • Head Start, which would get $10.6 billion, an increase of $550 million.
  • The Child Care and Development Block Grant, which would receive $5.8 billion, an increase of $550 million over current levels.
  • Preschool Development Grants, which would get an increase of $25 million over current levels.

The House is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. And the Senate must act quick to get it to the president’s desk and avoid a partial government shutdown. Federal funding is set to run out Friday at midnight. We will keep you posted.

Photo: Getty