‘An incredible public health advance’: Raising the legal age to purchase tobacco

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- A major shift in the way that tobacco is bought and sold, as President Donald Trump signs new legislation that raises the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21-years-old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the country; that breaks down to about 1,300 deaths per day.

NBC15 News spoke with experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who say the new law could drastically change those numbers.

“Raising the purchase age of cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21, is an incredible public health advance,” says Dr. Michael Fiore, a professor of medicine and physician with University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Prevention.

The new legislation brings change for both e-cigarette and tobacco shops, only allowing sales to customers ages 21-years-old and older.

That means places like Puff Vapor on Madison’s east side will soon see a change in its customer base.

“I think we will be moving to 21 literally tomorrow,” says owner Rick Gundermann.

Gundermann says he has yet to receive an official notice from the United States Food and Drug Administration, but saw a post on the law change on Thursday night. He and his employees will no longer sell to customers between 18 and 20-years-old.

Dr. Fiore says the new law could bring a big change in tobacco use.

“It's been estimated that as a result of this, 200,000 kids who would have otherwise become addicted to cigarettes will not, because of raising the age of purchase to 21,” he tells NBC15 News.

Dr. Fiore explains that 95 percent of cigarette users start smoking before they are 21-year-old, which increases their chances to becoming addicted.

“The adolescent brain is very elastic, and very susceptible to lifelong nicotine addiction. If we could protect that adolescent brain to 20, 22, 24, they’re incredibly less likely to ever become addicted to tobacco products,” he explains. “What we find is that cigarettes may be the most deadly product out there for kids.”

In addition to preventing addiction, Dr. Fiore expects less children to try any sort of tobacco product altogether.

“The major way that high school kids get cigarettes or e-cigarettes is that their older friends, seniors in high school who are already 18-years-old, buy them for them. So by raising the age to 21, we're protecting a whole generation of high school kids,” he says.

Back at Puff Vapor, Gundermann says his business will not see the drop in customers that many other tobacco stores may face.

“The vast majority of our customers are reformed smokers who are over the age of 21. In fact we've looked into it, and our total sales to the range between 18 to 21 is probably only about 5 percent,” Gundermann says.

NBC15 News reached out to several stores that strictly sell tobacco, but no one wanted to speak on-camera. However, multiple store owners told reporters that they expect to see a significant hit in profit, as many of their customers are college age students.

Click here for more resources to help you quit using tobacco products.