Large tobacco companies have never been consistent when it comes to the acceptance of electronic nicotine delivery systems and other alternative nicotine products on the market. Corporate powerhouses like Altria and Reynolds American have all worked, in some capacity, against the rising consumer phenomenon that is vaping.

I value the rights of companies to advocate and sell products they view will help achieve their version of the American dream; however, a free society allows competitors to challenge the status quo. The established powers rarely like these challenges, thus justifying to them the creation of market cartels that seek to eliminate the inevitability of a failing industry facing a reckoning.

Big tobacco’s game

As the entire space of tobacco control continues to advocate limitations on alternative nicotine products, large tobacco companies have joined in the efforts. Recently, Altria announced their support for raising the legal minimum age for users to access e-cigarettes and vaping products across the country.

“Today, the number one way kids get tobacco products is through social access, meaning the purchase of tobacco products by someone of legal age for use by minors. Raising the minimum age nationally to 21 should go a long way to solving that problem,” Altria CEO Howard Willard announced in past months. Citing the claims of the ostensible youth vaping epidemic, Willard has faulted vaping as the justification for raising minimum access ages to 21.

Such a position is highly hypocritical. Altria invested billions into Juul Labs, the largest e-cigarette manufacturer by market share, and has previously worked to undermine previous age lifting proposals. As a result of this position, the assumption from vaping’s opposition is that Altria and other large tobacco companies speak on behalf of the entire industry. It’s true that Reynolds American and Altria are vocal tobacco firms supporting age restrictions, but the reasons why are results of politics and gaming the existing regulatory system. Before the surprising announcement of his resignation in one month, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb failed to reform his agency’s Center for Tobacco Products forcing the fights over pre-market product approvals to rage on. Both Altria and Reynolds American have several new vaping, heat-not-burn, and oral tobacco (e.g., snus) products in pre-approval processes and, as a result, present a case of quid pro quo.

Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, told the Associated Press that the latest advocacy for age restrictions are indicative of such a scenario.

“Both Altria and Reynolds seem to recognize the only way of getting pre-market tobacco applications and substantial equivalence reforms approved is to give something up,” Conley said in the report mentioned above. If this assessment proves accurate, Altria and Reynolds American are attempting to game the success of their future products while directly and indirectly harming the larger vaping industry.

In the piece where Conley’s comments can be found, the Associated Press reported on the FDA’s support for minimum age purchase restriction policies. Featuring support from firms like Juul and R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. (Reynolds American’s vaping division) due to the specter of FDA enforcement, the support for a 21-years age restriction seems universally supported. Other supporting firms listed in this report include Altria subsidiary NuMark, Imperial Brand’s Fontem Ventures, and Japan Tobacco’s Logic brand.

Keep in mind; the e-cigarette companies that have fallen under FDA scrutiny the most are mainly all divisions or investments of some of the largest tobacco firms in the world. By consequence, this instantly suggests to outsiders that these firms are then speaking on behalf of the vaping industry as a whole. But, this isn’t the case. 

Tobacco 21 and access to vape

The Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation runs the Tobacco 21 (T21) initiative. According to the program’s website, the foundation, founded in 1996, “strives to reduce the terrible toll of smoking and tobacco use through a preventive effort.” The organization’s efforts support “raising the legal minimum sales age to 21.” 

Tobacco 21 is also the name for the series of legislative and regulatory proposals brought forth by elected officials and civic leaders to raise the minimum legal sales age to 21. Through the creation, support, and passage of model legislation and the coordinated efforts of coalitions, Tobacco 21 laws are in effect across seven states, Guam, and hundreds of localities.

While there are good intentions, the implementation of a Tobacco 21 law is still highly controversial. For example, an age lifting proposal in Nebraska, brought forth by State Sen. Dan Quick this year, would increase the legal purchase age for vaping products to 21. The proposal would additionally leave products like oral tobacco and combustible cigarettes legal for purchase by people 18 years or older. Other proposals that specifically target vaping exist in other states like Connecticut and Iowa. However, the vast majority of Tobacco 21 proposals broadly target tobacco and alternative nicotine products. Regardless of what the proposal targets explicitly, raising the minimum legal sale age (MLSA) for these products could unintentionally have adverse effects.

To note, much of the justification behind these proposals stems from the notable increases in e-cigarette use among high school-going youth. Commonly reported, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and other federally-funded youth substance abuse surveys all indicate increases in vaping. However, as pointed out by preeminent journalist Clive Bates of Counterfactual Consulting and others, the vaping statistics aren’t accurate. Through my analyses, I’ve found that the surveys fail to track daily use and the commonality of youth who are actually addicted to nicotine. All of these anonymous surveys only suggest use trends that emulate increased rates in experimentation over increased rates of addictive use.

The age lifting measures, additionally, could impact product access for barely legal and soon-to-be legal smokers addicted to combustible cigarettes. 

“I get a lot of 18-year-olds that come in on their birthdays,” says Kimberly Manor, the owner of the Northern Michigan-based chain of vape shops known as Moose Jooce. “The kids that live in Northern Michigan aren’t going to go to Harvard. These are the kids that at 18 they are going to join the military. These are the kids that at 18 are going to sign for hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt.”

“We’re helicopter parenting if we support T21,” she said in a phone call with me. “My son went into the military at age 21. But, he has buddies that went in at 18. What are they supposed to do? Say: ‘Hey buddy will you buy me a bottle of e-juice because I’m going to get shipped out to Afghanistan?’ It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Manor and shop owners like her believe that Tobacco 21 policies coddle the younger nicotine consumers. Due to this belief, this raises another question: If 18 year-olds can make the life-threatening decision to fight for their country, then why can’t they have access to cigarettes or safer alternative nicotine products?

There is palpable concern among the vaping industry, and it focuses on two aspects: Individual choice, as I highlighted with Manor’s comments, and the access to safer nicotine products.

The idea of harm minimization being marginalized can come into play. Organizations like the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Smoke-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, and the Truth Initiative have called for the passage of age restrictions across the United States. One of the most cited studies among these groups is a 2015 analysis published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM report tested age restriction policies at the request of the Obama-era FDA. The findings concluded that an MLSA increase would cut the access of tobacco and nicotine products to minors by 25 percent for 15-17 year-olds and 15 percent for 18-20 year-olds. However, the study doesn’t account for the potential for increases in use among specific individual demographics and socio-economic groups.

Plus, an MLSA proposal focused exclusively on e-cigarettes and vaping products would directly increase smoking rates. While a total T21 proposal would cut the access number for some minors, we still have to extrapolate with the seemingly inevitable occurrence that “under 21” minors will always find ways to access tobacco and nicotine products.

Think about access to alcohol in the United States for context. There is a national drinking age of 21 years, and drinking rates among teens are considerably down from past years. However, according to CDC data, 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States is done by minors. This will need to be further measured, but limiting the access of tobacco and nicotine products for 18, 19, and 20 year-olds could increase the illegal access of products and, by consequence, create another “epidemic.” Tobacco companies supporting these policies is just as troubling because, based on substance abuse statistics among youth, they will still profit regardless of whether sales were legitimate or illicit. The only other comparison that I have is how negatively the “war on drugs” has impacted the United States. I don’t intend to bring in the debates surrounding cannabis legalization, supervised injection sites, and other illicit drug harm reduction strategies, but they do provide models for viable harm reductions strategy.

The industry’s voice

Industry leaders also want to make it clear that any support for “Vaping 21” or Tobacco 21 policies counteracts the mission of vaping.

“We have no reason to believe that denying 18, 19, or 20-year-old adult smokers access to these life-changing alternatives will further reduce underage cigarette consumption,” says Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, in an email to Vaping Post. “Today, fewer 18-year-olds are entering adulthood as cigarette smokers than ever before – and that is something we should all celebrate,” he added, citing the nation’s historically low smoking rates.

My next point, based on Abboud’s remarks, focuses on how the industry believes in their products as safer alternatives to combustibles and some oral products. As mentioned above, the outsiders to the vaping industry view it as an interlinked phenomenon to that of the tobacco industry. Just by the composition of the physical products, vaping is primarily a technology and accessories industry while e-juices could be considered their own economic category. There are no tobacco leaves nor rolling of paper associated. Because e-juices in majority contain nicotine and vaping devices create the vapor (like smoke), the assumption that these products are tobacco products is made, and it reflects in federal and state legal codes.

“I do not believe industry outsiders see Big Tobacco’s position as representative of the industry,” Brittani Cushman, senior vice president of external affairs for Turning Point Brands, wrote in an email. “In states where there is a proposal to raise the age to purchase legal products to 21, there has been consistent pushback from within the industry, even while some companies have been supportive.”

Cushman makes an excellent point. You can easily pass judgment on an industry that is controversial without actually having any understanding of the institutional workings of it. Large tobacco companies do sell vaping products as apart of their more extensive portfolios, but industrial acceptance of those brands as “pure” vaping products is debatable. Even when questions about underage use come up, the industry sentiments are always focused on compliance. 

“What is consistent across the [vaping] industry is the strongly-held belief that youth should not be using nicotine products,” Cushman added. “That being said, we do not live in a perfect world, and we already know that many smokers began smoking, and continue to do so, well before the current legal age of 18. We should not sentence those smokers to have to wait an additional 3 years in order to gain access to a variety of lower risk products, whether it be vaping or other less harmful alternatives. Without a more comprehensive approach to combat the youth usage problem, including stronger enforcement of underage sales, education around the prevention of social sources, and elimination of inappropriate marketing practices, raising the age will not solve the youth access and appeal issues.”

Death by the so-called moral high road

To conclude, it’s crucial for me to highlight that I share many of the opinions of the individuals quoted. However, that doesn’t impact the truth. Tobacco 21 policies and the organizations that support them commonly have overlapping interests.

All parties in support of Tobacco 21 all claim to have the moral high ground when it comes to increasing an MLSA. Tobacco companies can argue that they are interested in taking social responsibility. The well-funded public health foundations can claim that they are protecting the country’s children. Government agencies like FDA or CDC can claim that they are heeding the cries of the population and wish to serve as public servants. However, what’s dismissed is that while these organizations and individuals work together to advocate Tobacco 21 policies and other restrictive regulations (e.g., flavor bans, higher taxes, criminalization, etc.), there is an entire entity that is ignored.

The vaping industry can claim that they are purveyors of a technology that has saved lives and improves the health of millions of former smokers every day. Even youth and young adults who switched to an e-cigarette or mod can take heart in knowing that they are ingesting their nicotine through a safer means.

I agree that we have to prevent the access of nicotine for minors under 18 years-old. This can’t be done at the expense of improved health outcomes for addicted youth once they are of age to legally purchase safer nicotine products. In turn, the institutionalization of such policies emulate the “quit or die” or “all or nothing” mentalities of governments all over the world.

We have to help expand access to non-medical nicotine via alternatives to smoking like vaping, snus, and (in some cases) heat-not-burn products. If we don’t, we’re asking our cigarette-addicted youth to risk sickness, even death, at the hands of those who supposedly “take the moral high ground.”

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Michael McGrady Jr is a columnist for Vaping Post's English edition. He is a critically acclaimed journalist with awards and recognition from across the industry. He was a finalist for ECigClick's annual vape awards in 2019 and 2020, a KAC Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship Fellow in 2019, among other honors. All articles express his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the Editor's view.