Up in smoke: Tobacco purchases by anyone under 21 now prohibited

DOVER — The sign on the checkout counter at the Grocery Basket corner store in downtown Dover reminded customers that they had to be born on or before July 16, 1998 — 21 years old — to purchase tobacco products on Tuesday.

The increase was due to a new state law passed in April in which Delaware legislators voted to raise the age to purchase cigarettes, vapes, chewing tobacco and related items from 18 to 21.
The new law left both the owner and customers at the Grocery Basket scratching their heads.

“I really don’t understand it,” said Kerri Hylton, while grabbing lunch with her son on Tuesday. “What’s the purpose of making (the smoking age) 21? It’s just going to make more kids do it illegally.

“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Kids can join the military, but they can’t smoke cigarettes. If you’re going to make the age higher on anything, I think they should have made it for alcohol, and not tobacco.”

Mary Hecker, owner of the Grocery Basket, said her neighborhood store at 301 North Bradford Street will definitely feel a pinch due to the smoking law when Wesley College students return for their fall semester.

“We have been thin (Tuesday) but it’s because it’s been a slow day,” she said. “We’ve only turned two people away that normally would come here and buy tobacco but fall in that age range between 18 and 21. It will be a considerable drop-off when the college comes back.

“A lot of students are from out-of-state and they probably have no idea about this change. We did try to tell people and we’re going to put a sign up.
“We did try to remind them before they left last semester, especially those that we see all the time, just know it’s legal for you to have it, it’s just illegal for you to purchase it when you get back.

“The standard response has been, ‘That’s stupid.’”
That was one of the confusing things with the law, according to Ms. Hecker — it’s OK for the younger population to smoke, just not to purchase tobacco products.

Gov. Carney said the law is intended to reduce the number of smokers. According to a 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine, 95 percent of adults who smoke started before turning 21, and increasing the age to 21 nationwide would result in 223,000 fewer premature deaths.

“Preventing smoking is the best thing we can do to improve the health of our state and reduce the growth of health care costs over time,” Gov. Carney said in April. “The use of tobacco-related products is the leading cause of preventable death and disability in Delaware and across the country.

“Tobacco-related illnesses, such as lung cancer and heart disease, claim the lives of 1,400 Delawareans each year, and treatment of those illnesses costs Delaware families, businesses and the State more than $530 million annually. We expect this legislation will help curb the impact of smoking on Delaware families by preventing more young Delawareans from picking up this dangerous habit in the first place.”

Kartik Patel opened the Oasis Hookah Lounge at 4115 North Dupont Highway in Dover in early March, knowing a law that would increase the age to purchase tobacco and related products was sitting on the horizon.

Closely logging his demographic data, he says 61 percent of his customers are from ages 18-24, followed by 31 percent in the 25-34 range. Most of his customers are college students and service members from Dover Air Force Base.
The new tobacco law will force Mr. Patel to change his business philosophies.

“We’ll need to pivot to selling alcohol and becoming more of a bar just to stay afloat,” said Mr. Patel. “That’s something I just didn’t want to do because it draws a certain type of crowd. I was looking to create a lounge atmosphere, not a bar one. We’re open until 2 a.m. and with alcohol in the mix, that can sometimes bring trouble with it.”

Mr. Patel said the local legislation came as an unpleasant surprise.
“I saw that they’d passed a bill like this in Hawaii and New Jersey, but I honestly didn’t think Delaware was taking it very serious,” he said. “But, just as I was getting ready to have my grand opening, legislators started pushing it and Gov. Carney announced his support.”

Sam Chick, owner of the Puffster smoke shop and vape lounge at 115 Loockerman Street, said the new law will probably just change the way the younger crowd goes about purchasing their tobacco products and will hurt legitimate businesses such as his and Mr. Patel’s.

“I expect the impact on our business from the change to be small but significant for legitimate businesses,” Mr. Chick said. “Legislators and the governor just created a new opportunity for the black market. Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of circumvention, just like alcohol, whether it’s paid circumvention or just friends and family buying as a favor.”

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