Sen. Mitt Romney joins effort to raise legal age to 21 for tobacco and e-cigarettes

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney meets state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol as he speaks with members of the Republican House Caucus during a series of meetings, Feb. 21, 2019.

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney is pushing bipartisan legislation to raise the federal legal age to buy tobacco to 21, an effort backed by the tobacco industry and that health advocates hope will curtail younger Americans from smoking.

Romney, a Utah Republican, said the bill was the first step in addressing an avoidable health crisis of young Americans taking up e-cigarettes as well as traditional tobacco products. The legislation would raise the age to buy any tobacco product to 21 as well as allow the Health and Human Services Department to conduct undercover compliance checks, retail inspections and enforce the law with fines.

“It makes all the sense in the world to say let's try and help young people from getting hooked on this terrible product,” Romney said at a news conference Wednesday unveiling the bill.

“Unfortunately, we also know that young people tend to have — in some cases — not a lot of perspective about the choices they’re making and perhaps not enough experience to make that judgment that’s most wise for their long-term experience,” Romney added. “And for that reason, it makes all the sense in the world to make it illegal for young people to purchase these products so that we can help them during a time when their judgment is not as clear as it might be. Older people typically have figured out that tobacco products make no sense at all.”

Utah lawmakers approved legislation — and Gov. Gary Herbert signed — that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products in steps. By 2021, residents will have to be 21 or above to purchase tobacco. (The new law exempts active military members and their spouses under the reasoning, as explained by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, that “smoking is dangerous but carrying a gun in a combat zone is dangerous as well.”)

Romney and his fellow co-sponsors of the congressional bill acknowledge that there’s still more to do when it comes to combating teenage smoking, such as further regulating of candy flavored tobacco products, but that this measure is one they think they can easily pass.

“We should do as much as we can,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in response to a question from The Salt Lake Tribune. “There are a lot of things not in this bill, but this is a step we can take on a bipartisan basis that could be enacted this year that would save a lot of lives.

“It’s not the end of the conversation,” Schatz added. “This is part of a strategy. This is not the whole strategy.”

Hosts of anti-tobacco advocates support the efforts by Romney and his bill partners, though they also urge more action.

“While an important step, Tobacco 21 legislation should be a complement to — and not a substitute for — other effective measures to reduce tobacco use,” said a statement from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. “A prohibition on flavored tobacco products is especially critical to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic and stop tobacco companies from continuing to target kids. The evidence is clear that flavors play a key role in youth initiation and continued use of tobacco products.”

Romney and other co-sponsors pressed that their bill was a clean measure, unshackled from any special interest language and could move quickly if it isn't amended with riders that would bog it down.

It’s unclear, the senators sponsoring the bill said, how their legislation would match up with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to also raise the legal age to buy tobacco products but they suggested the Kentucky Republican should sign onto their bill since it has bipartisan support.

Big Tobacco has lined up in support of raising the legal age to buy its products. Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris, bought a full-page ad in The Washington Post on Wednesday that blared, “Stopping underage vaping starts with raising the age to purchase tobacco nationwide.”

Meanwhile, Walmart announced Wednesday that it would limit tobacco sales to people 21 and older starting July 1.