At the Feb. 6 county commissioners’ meeting, by a vote of 5-1, Dare County became the first county in the state to adopt a resolution formally asking the North Carolina General Assembly to raise the age of tobacco sales to 21.
Entitled a “Resolution Requesting North Carolina General Assembly to Pass Legislation to Protect Our Kids from Vaping and Nicotine Addiction,” the resolution was first passed by the Dare County Health and Human Services Department’s (DHHS) board of directors with the recommendation that it would be presented to the commissioners.
For DHHS Director Sheila Davies, this “T21” resolution continues the county’s leadership in addressing concerns about tobacco use and health.
“In 2015, Dare County became the first county in the state to restrict e-cigarette use in restaurants and bars,” she wrote in an email. “It is fitting that the Dare County DHHS Board and BOC [Board of Commissioners] would support the T21 resolution as they both have historically been in the forefront of addressing public health issues.”
Since 2019, federal law restricts the sale of tobacco products to adults 21 years of age or older. The federal law, however, does not require states to match the national standard, and North Carolina is one of just nine states where the minimum age for tobacco is lower than the national law.
For Teresa Beardsley, the Albemarle Regional Health Services Region 9 Tobacco Manager, the resolution is an important step in bringing the state into compliance with federal statute.
“North Carolina does need to raise the age to match this federal requirement that was passed in 2019,” she told the commissioners at the board meeting, adding that the 18-year-old threshold in North Carolina likely leads to long-term use of tobacco products later in life.
“Many young people transition from this experimental use to regular daily use between the ages of 18 to 21,” she said.
Of particular concern to Beardsley is an explosion in the use of vaping among teenagers. According to a 2020 Youth Tobacco Survey, between 2011 and 2019, vaping use increased five-fold among the state’s middle school students and use among high school students increased by more than 1,100%.
Beardsley, in her comments to the commissioners, pointed to the state law allowing sales to 18-year-old as one of the factors in that exponential growth.
“The most common social source of E-Cigarettes among youth 13 to 17 is from a friend that’s under 21,” she said.
Generally the onus of determining whether a purchaser is old enough to buy a product is on the clerk or retail business. “The clerk is held responsible for a violation of illegally selling a tobacco product to a person under the age of 18. It’s a criminal Class 2 Misdemeanor only for the clerk,” Beardsley wrote in her email.
Asked if there is a link between tobacco and e-cigarette use, Beardsley, in an email to the Voice, said that “nicotine use can prime the adolescent brain for addiction to other substances [but] we don’t want to stigmatize teens who vape as being ‘future drug addicts.’”
Underscoring Beardsley’s observation about potential addiction to nicotine are statistics in the 2020 survey showing that 65.7% of high school students and 74.3% of middle school students attempted to quit tobacco products over the course of a year.
The federal law requiring purchasers of tobacco products to be at least 21 does not mandate that states follow suit, but as the resolution notes, the state could lose money it uses for drug addiction programs.
“NC could lose over $4 million in annual funding from the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant money [which the state uses to pay for drug treatment] through penalties under the federal Synar amendment if sales to underage youth are too high in required annual inspections…” the resolution states.
Although the resolution was passed by the board of commissioners 5-1, Dare Commissioner Rob Ross was the sole vote against the measure, calling into question what he saw as inconsistencies between tobacco enforcement and marijuana laws.