The federal law raising the legal age to buy tobacco and other products containing nicotine from 18 to 21 went into effect a few months ago, and Wyoming is still playing catch-up to reconcile state laws before it can be meaningfully enforced.

As it stands, Wyoming statute still sets the age at 18. While there is a bill currently working its way through the state Legislature to reconcile the age difference, if passed, it would not go into effect until July.

Before the federal mandate went into effect, 19 other states had already enacted similar legislation. Furthermore, many large chain and franchise vendors had changed their individual company policies for their nationwide locations.

According to statistics compiled by Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit health organization, Wyoming received an estimated $40.2 million in revenue from tobacco settlement payments and taxes in fiscal year 2019. For the same year, the state committed $3 million to tobacco prevention, which is 35.8% of the annual spending target suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wyoming ranks 44th in terms of state taxes on tobacco products. The state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 60 cents, whereas the national average is $1.81.

There are no official projections regarding how much revenue the state stands to lose if 18- to 21-year-old consumers are eliminated from the picture. However, it is known that Wyoming has a higher-than-average tobacco usage rate for high-schoolers. Nationally, the average rate of high school students that used electronic vapor products was 24.1%. In Wyoming, that number was 29.6% in 2015. That same year, the national rate of high-schoolers that used smokeless tobacco was 7.3%. In Wyoming, it was 11.6%.

The National Academy of Medicine established in 2015 that raising the tobacco purchase age has an undeniable and considerable impact on culling teen and young adult smoking, and 95% of adult smokers began before age 21.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids asserts the age raise has the potential to keep nicotine out of high schools, as older classmates would be unable to purchase for their younger friends.

“Of course, we have a long history of supporting actions that have the potential to reduce smoking rates among Wyoming residents because of the well-documented harms tobacco products can cause to health,” said Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti.

While hearts and minds of health professionals and business owners are generally in alignment, there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to enforcement. Many local law enforcement entities around the state have made public statements clarifying they will not be the ones enforcing the federal statute.

“Regardless of federal law, the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office will enforce Wyoming State Statues regarding the sale, purchase, possession and use of tobacco products,” said Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson in a press release Jan. 3. “Retailers and those that provide tobacco to anyone 18 to 20 should consider the new federal law and the possibility that a federal law enforcement entity may decide to enforce that law within Sheridan County.”

Thompson said he drafted the release in response to questions he had been asked locally. A few days later, the sheriffs in Crook and Sweetwater counties released similar statements, as did the Cheyenne Police Department.

Lincoln County Sheriff M. Shane Johnson explained it boils down to a matter of jurisdiction.

“State law enforcement officers cannot enforce federal law. We can only enforce Wyoming state law,” Johnson said. “Wyoming law currently allows people ages 18 and older to purchase tobacco products. The Wyoming governor would have to sign legislation which had passed the House and Senate changing the legal age from 18 to 21 before it became enforceable.”

The Wyoming Legislature will consider a law to reconcile the national and statewide tobacco age in their coming legislative session.

House District 43 Representative and Revenue Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said statewide legislation has been in the works since before the federal law became effective.

“This bill was from the interim Management Council meeting last March, it was proposed in May at our Lander meeting, and subsequently approved in September in Pinedale before the federal law was discussed,” he said, adding that he is unaware of any federal actions in place that are designed to expedite having states amend their individual laws.

“The federal government normally uses fines or jail time when a person does not follow the law. I am not aware of the federal government offering ‘incentives’ to follow any law, but damn, I would be rich if they did,” Zwonitzer said. “They do, however, resort to coercive blackmail in some instances to ensure states follow their laws if we want to receive federal funds.”

For now, it’s clear that anyone enforcing the national tobacco age will be a federal agent.

“Failure to follow the law results in the (the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) potentially paying you a visit, and (it) will likely ruin your weekend,” Zwonitzer said.

While ATF has field offices in Cheyenne and Lander, it certainly does not equal the presence, and thus enforcement capacity, of individual local law agencies. For now, the most prevalent line of safeguarding our new national standard in public health is individual businesses, even if that means turning away a previous customer.

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