BRISTOL, VA. — You now need to be at least 21 years old to purchase tobacco and nicotine products in Virginia, and employees at local stores shared mixed responses Monday, when the new state law took effect.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly voted with bipartisan support to raise the minimum age from 18 to 21, and Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law.
According to numbers from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Virginia joins 15 other states that have raised the minimum tobacco age. Supporters said passing the law would reduce the number of young people who start smoking, address electronic cigarette use and help adolescent well-being.
Health officials have also been raising red flags about e-cigarettes, with the Food and Drug Administration warning last year that the use of e-cigarettes by youths has reached “epidemic proportions.”
Standing behind the counter of the Zoomerz gas station off Commonwealth Avenue in Bristol, Virginia, on Monday, cashier Debra Miller said she fully supports the new law because it will help keep tobacco out of the hands of young people.
“I drive a school bus for Sullivan County [Tennessee] as well, and I do totally agree with the age limit being 21 because it makes it tougher for especially the high school kids to get a hold of the tobacco products,” she said. “That is a big issue that all of us drivers have on our buses is the kids sitting in the back [of the] buses smoking, stuff like that.”
Tennessee’s minimum age is still 18, which led others who work in local stores to express skepticism about the effectiveness of the new law if people between 18 and 21 can drive across the border and purchase tobacco products in Tennessee. Employees also said they’re concerned about the law’s impacts on the Virginia side of the border.
“I think it’s going to hurt the sales,” said Tina, a manager at a Quick Stop market on Commonwealth Avenue on the Virginia side of Bristol. Tina, who declined to share her last name, said a change in the minimum age could potentially be better if both Tennessee and Virginia did it at the same time.
Further up the street, off Commonwealth Avenue Extension, Janice Deboard, a manager at G&G Country Store, said she doesn’t think young people should start smoking in the first place, and she acknowledges the health concerns that led to the new law. But she also said using tobacco products is a decision that the state should ultimately allow 18-year-olds to make for themselves.
“If you get in trouble at 18, you’re a legal adult,” Deboard said. “If you’re going to be an adult and be responsible for everything else in your life, that should be the age.”
The new law states that “No person less than 21 years of age shall attempt to purchase, purchase or possess any tobacco product, nicotine vapor product, or alternative nicotine product.”
Given the possibility of young people purchasing such products in Tennessee and taking them back to Virginia, Capt. Maynard Ratcliff with the Bristol Virginia Police Department said he anticipates the differences in state laws “will, at some point, pose a problem.”
“We’ll be enforcing the new law restrictions regarding underage possession just as we have any other similar laws in the past,” he added.