By Ellen Fike
Cowboy State Daily
The end of the year is ordinarily a hectic time with the rush to complete holiday shopping and preparing for the new year. People usually scramble to complete their work in time for a relaxing few days off from work.
But lawmakers in Washington D.C. were unusually busy passing one piece of legislation in the closing days of the year: a spending bill that also increased the national smoking age to 21 from 18.
It can take months to implement new laws, but on Dec. 20, the age increase went into effect immediately, putting a strain on retailers selling cigarettes and other tobacco-related products (such as vapes, chewing tobacco and more).
However, in Wyoming, law enforcement officers enforce state laws, not federal ones, creating some confusion over how to handle the new age for tobacco use.
Crook County Sheriff Jeff Hodge said that the smoke has begun to clear over what it means to enforce a state law vs. a federal law.
“When the Federal Drug Administration passed the law, it was more for retailers to enforce rather than police,” Hodge said. “We definitely got a lot of calls about it, so I ended up writing a press release to clear up some of the confusion. Ultimately, we’re going to keep marching on as we always have.”
Legally, no one under the age of 21 can buy cigarettes or other tobacco products anywhere in the country, as it’s a federal crime.
However until the Wyoming Legislature passes a new state statute reflecting the federal law, officers won’t do much, if anything, regarding possession of tobacco products by those under 21.
A person between the ages of 18 and 20 can possess any tobacco products in the state of Wyoming and won’t be penalized for it, at least for the time being.
“For example, if an 18-year-old is involved in a traffic stop and they have tobacco in the car, the officer isn’t going to do or say anything about it at this point,” said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. “Really, it’s state law that someone between 18 and 20 can have tobacco. Federally, they just can’t purchase it for themselves.”
Federal agents could run compliance checks at retailers that sell tobacco, so if anyone is caught selling to a person under 21, hefty fines could be in place for the seller and the business, Oedekoven said.
While 19 states already had laws on their books stating that no one under 21 could purchase tobacco products, the law passed in December made it apply nationally.
The change is intended to discourage teens from smoking, as vaping nicotine has surged in popularity among young people in the last few years. In March 2015, the National Academy of Medicine published information that showed by raising the smoking age to 21, more than 223,000 deaths could be prevented among people born between 2000 to 2019. It would also reduce lung cancer deaths by 50,000.
The Legislature could approve a statute mirroring the federal law during its upcoming budget session. But it could either go into effect immediately or not until July 1.
Once the state law passes to ban those under 21 from possessing tobacco, anyone between 18 and 20 who is caught with tobacco or tobacco products could receive a possession citation, although Oedekoven noted that it’s up to the discretion of law enforcement and prosecutors to go forward with pursuing that type of charge. It would also be up to the court’s discretion on how much to fine someone possessing tobacco.
“I think it would be fair to say that if you ended up in court with a smoking citation, there were lots of other things you were doing besides just have cigarettes on you,” Oedekoven said. “It’s an interesting dilemma you have here, but this isn’t the only federal law that isn’t enforced in Wyoming.”
While Oedekoven and Hodge understand why the age was increased from 18 to 21, they both felt as if Congress was a little hasty passing the legislation as quickly as it did.
“I think maybe the feds are overreaching a bit,” Hodge said. “There are a lot of opinions out there about the increase, like how you can go to war, but you can’t buy cigarettes now. I know vaping is a bigger issue than smoking or chewing, but I just think that this was a haste law that wasn’t very well thought out.”