The Wisconsin State Assembly passed Assembly Bill 422, pushing the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age.

Wisconsin Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) authored the bill, which follows President Donald Trump’s administration’s amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to raise the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, which was signed Dec. 20, 2019. 

The push for the bill comes from a need to comply with the federal government’s appropriation powers. To continue to receive millions of dollars in federal funding for substance abuse and prevention grants, the state of Wisconsin is required to pass a mirror bill to the Trump administration’s amendments on the FD&C Act, according to WHBL news.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told National Public Radio the Trump administration amended the FD&C Act out of concern for teens becoming increasingly addicted to nicotine after cigarette and electronic cigarette use and exposure. 

Attorney Chris W. Brophy said the federal government has a history of applying its appropriation powers to push states into passing bills mirroring federal laws. Brophy added while the supremacy clause of the Constitution states federal law takes precedence over state law in cases involving opposition between states and the federal government, this rarely allows federal law enforcement agencies to enforce the federal laws in states.

Though federal officials could theoretically penalize Wisconsin stores for selling tobacco products to customers under the age of 21 years, Brophy said the federal government usually will not allocate its time and resources to doing this, leaving law enforcement largely in the hands of the state.

Long before the federal government threatened to terminate funding in Wisconsin, many political parties, police officers and health professionals pushed to change the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vape products to 21. On Jan. 15, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association wrote a letter to state legislators asking them to mirror the state law to federal law. 

“Until state law mirrors federal law, state and local police powers’ hands are tied to enforce the retail sale and purchase of these potentially dangerous products,” the WCPA letter said.

Without local law enforcement’s authority to enforce the new minimum age requirements, there will likely be no effect on the epidemic, the WCPA letter said.

As police officers push to reduce teen smoking and vaping, health professionals work to keep legislators informed on the damaging effects of nicotine. Dr. Megan Piper of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention explained her research, which helps to inform policy.  

“The concern with adolescent brains is that they are still developing and [nicotine] changes the way they develop,” Piper said.

The main benefit of the legislation is to make it harder for adolescents to access tobacco products,” Piper said. “The hope is to delay exposure and reduce the likelihood of developing dependence.”

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Passing a tobacco 21 law could prevent 223,000 deaths among people born between 2000 and 2019, including 50,000 fewer dying from lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association. But, it is estimated Wisconsin could lose $11.3 million in tax money. Additionally, enforcement is expected to cost the state around $130,000.

Though, by not passing the law, Wisconsin would lose millions of dollars in federal funding for substance abuse and prevention grants, Spiros told WHBL news. Piper described this as critical to the state. 

“I think it is very important to have sufficient funding to treat smoking and other substance use disorders,” Piper said. “Smoking kills almost half a million people every year, including almost 8,000 Wisconsinites every year.”

The bill passed the state assembly and awaits Gov. Tony Evers’ signature before becoming state law.