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US votes to raise age for buying tobacco — including e-cigs — from 18 to 21

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It wasn’t a surprising change

Photo by Helen Havlak / The Verge

The US Congress has voted to raise the age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21, and it’s applied that rule to e-cigarettes as well as more traditional tobacco products. The higher age limit was included in a federal spending package that passed the House of Representatives earlier this week. It’s now been approved by the Senate, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

This change, which will likely go into effect next year, has been in the works for a while. In April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) started pushing a bill to raise the buying age for tobacco, saying he was responding to a dramatic rise in teen vaping. That bill was later added to the spending package. Trump publicly supported raising the vaping age to 21 in November, and 19 states plus the District of Columbia have already passed “Tobacco 21” laws, starting with Hawaii in 2015.

Dominant e-cigarette maker Juul has backed these new restrictions at both state and federal levels. (Tobacco giant and Juul investor Altria also supports the move.) Raising the buying age could take regulatory pressure off tobacco companies in other areas, like flavored e-cigarettes, which have been banned in three states and several municipalities, including New York City as of this week.

E-cigarettes have been singled out for criticism in 2019 because of a sudden lung injury crisis that affected thousands of people and killed over 40. But the Tobacco 21 movement has focused on tobacco use in general, not just vaping. And regulators have been slowly moving toward treating e-cigarettes like other tobacco products for years. Research suggests that vaping can be a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, but it poses a greater health risk than not smoking anything at all, and it can lead teenagers to take up cigarette smoking. The US Food and Drug Administration issued a broad set of regulations for the devices in 2016, banning their sale to people under 18.