Oregon raises age to 21 for nicotine products starting Jan. 1

Local tobacco retailers have already seen the impact of the change, which took place in Lane County earlier this year

The legal age for tobacco products and inhalant delivery systems will be raised in the State of Oregon from 18 to 21 on Jan. 1, becoming only the fifth state to do so, along with California, Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey.

Tobacco is one of the biggest public health threats facing the world, according to the World Health Organization. It kills more than 7 million people per year, with 6 million of those deaths resulting in direct tobacco use. Each year, 890,000 people die as a result of non-smokers being exposed to secondhand smoke.

By raising the age to 21, tobacco use as a whole is expected to decline by 12 percent in the U.S. and prevent 223,000 deaths, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine.

The report stated that nearly 90 percent of smokers reported having tried a cigarette before the age of 19, and nearly all before the age of 26.

While the public health benefits of raising the minimum age are well documented, many Oregon retailers are bracing for a possible economic downturn due to the new law, but Florence retailers aren’t worried. In fact, they’ve already been restricting tobacco use to 21 and over throughout the year. In April, Lane County raised the legal age to 21.

“We haven’t had any negative things come out of it,” said Anthony Kimme, manager of the Mini-Pet Mart in Florence. “No fallout. I’m still ordering $30,000 worth of cigarettes once a week. It hasn’t affected my sales as much as people previously thought prior to the law.”

One of the reasons for the soft decline in sales is there aren’t too many people between the ages of 18 and 21 in Florence, Kimme noted.

“Obviously, there are younger people coming in here as well,” he said. “But not much is going to change, being a community with so many people that are over the age of 50.”

Another reason that Kimme isn’t seeing a flood of complaints comes from national statistics. Teenage smoking has fallen drastically in the past few decades. In 1997, 25 percent of 12th graders smoked. In 2015, the rate dropped to six percent. And the rates continue to drop.

If there are complaints that Kimme sees, it’s from the 20-year-old age group.

“I’ve had a few issues with people who say, ‘So, I’ve been buying cigarettes for two years, and now I can’t?’ Well, the law changed. You have to abide by the law, otherwise you lose your license to sell,” he said.

If there is one nicotine product that has seen negative impacts from the law, it’s with electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigarettes. These are battery-operated devices that create a nicotine-infused vapor that is inhaled. The process is commonly referred to as “vaping.”

One of the most common uses for the device is to help wean long-time smokers from actual cigarettes. A recent study published in BMJ that surveyed 160,000 people over a 15-year period found that smokers who vaped were more likely to quit.

The health benefits of the devices are still being debated. When the FDA took over regulation of the devices in 2016, they regulated the age of those who were allowed to purchase the product. But they held off on making official rulings on the health effects of the devices until further research could be completed.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that e-cigarettes are associated with “substantially reduced levels of measured carcinogens and toxins relative to smoking only combustible cigarettes.”

This is not to say that the devices are completely safe. Along with causing lung irritation, many of the producers of the juices used to create the vapors are not transparent in what chemicals they are actually putting into their products, as reported by The Atlantic last month.

Still, in a July statement, the FDA stated that it was delaying regulations on e-cigarettes, a possible sign that it may endorse the device as a means to get smokers to quit.

The CDC states that “E-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.”

Quitting smoking is one of the main reasons that Michelle Overton, owner of the Glass Stash, decided to sell the devices.

“To be honest, both my husband and I lost both of our parents to cancer,” she said. “And so that’s why I’m so much against the cigarette smoking. You stink, and it’s just not that attractive. And it really put both our parents in the grave.”

When Lane County enacted the age restriction earlier this year, Overton did see a financial downturn.

“I would say, as far as our customer base is concerned, I’ve had to turn away maybe 25 percent,” she said. “At first, it was drastic, but I’m making changes in the store to be able to make up for that loss.”

Overton was unable to give exact numbers regarding the losses, but pointed out that the store has also been going through merchandise and management changes, which may have contributed to the lower sales.

One of the major complaints she sees is from younger military personnel arriving home after tours of duty.

The smoking rates in the military are above average, compared to the civilian population. In 2011, 24 percent of active duty personnel were smokers, compared with 19 percent of civilians, according to a Department of Defense report.

“I had someone in here yesterday who just got back from the military,” Overton said. “He’s 19 years old. He was upset because he can go fight for his country, but he can’t buy tobacco. That just doesn’t seem fair to me.”

While the large majority of Overton’s e-cigarette customers who are using the device to quit tobacco are over 50, she does see underage vapers attempting to come into the store.

“People have been waiting to be able to come into the store,” she said. “At 15 years old, they want to come into the cool store. And we have to kick them out, saying, ‘No, not until you’re 18.’ They say, ‘I’ve been waiting for three years, and now you’re telling me I have to wait until I’m 21?’ I get that most often, probably more than anything.”

One of the major arguments against the e-cigarettes are that they can be attractive to teenagers. Unlike traditional tobacco products, many of the inhalants are flavored, with titles like “Berry Cobbler” and “Gummy Bear.”

There are conflicting studies as to whether or not e-cigarettes act as a gateway to tobacco use.

A 2017 study published in Pediatrics found that, even with the introduction of e-cigarettes, teen smoking is still decreasing rapidly, finding “e-cigarette-only users would be unlikely to have initiated tobacco product use with cigarettes.”

But the CDC reports that 30.7 percent of teen e-cigarette users end up using tobacco products.

However, the CDC also reported that teen use of e-cigarettes has gone down in the past year. In 2017, 11.3 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes, down from 16 percent in 2015.

Another issue with e-cigarettes is the possibility of nicotine overdose. A recent device, called JUUL, is becoming more popular with teen smokers because it can be hidden in the palm of a hand and produces less vapors, according a report by NPR. A single pod of JUUL juice holds the same amount of nicotine as one pack of cigarettes. Because of this, users can inhale more without realizing how much nicotine they’re taking in, thus creating a greater chance of overdose.

“They’re too potent,” Overton said.

While she has received many requests for the product, she does not carry it in her store.

While the debate on how to completely illuminate teen smoking will continue for some time, the best way to permanently curb teen smoking is by being an example.

The 2017 Pediatrics study concluded that living with a smoker or having friends who smoke were the most likely causes of someone taking up tobacco.

“Kids start smoking whatever is available to them,” Overton said. “If they have a family member that smokes cigarettes, and it’s easy for them to steal cigarettes and start smoking, or if their friends have it, that’s probably an easier option too.”