A new law that regulates the sale of tobacco is causing some confusion as to when it actually goes into effect and who has jurisdiction to enforce it. As a result, some Grand Forks smoke shops are playing it safe to stay in compliance with the law.
A message on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website states that President Donald Trump signed legislation on Dec. 20 raising the federal minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. The message continues: “It is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes – to anyone under 21. FDA will provide additional details on this issue as they become available.” The FDA says its website is current as of Dec. 21.
The change has caused confusion as to when the law actually takes effect, and who has jurisdiction to enforce it.
“From everything I've read, nobody exactly knows when that law takes effect,” said Chad Hopkins, a co-owner of SnG Vapor, at 1815 DeMers Ave. “I've heard anywhere from next September to the 20th of December last year. So, to be safe, we went to 21.”
Hopkins said his business hasn’t taken a big hit because of the law change.
“There's a few customers that were 18 to 20 that can't buy anymore,” he said. “For the most part we deal with the older customers, the ones that are using it to quit smoking.
On Jan. 7, the Herald placed a call to Grand Forks Smoke Shop and E-cigs at 2475 32nd Ave. S., and found it was selling to people 18 and older.
“As of now, we’re still 18 plus. It’s going to change any day, I don’t know when,” said a clerk at the store who directed the Herald to speak with management, though no one was available.
Lyle Beckwith, the senior vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group that numbers more than 150,000 businesses, said NACA is advising its members to go by the Dec. 20 date for the new law.
“Well, if FDA says that, that's pretty much what we have to go by, although FDA has not given any clarification,” said Beckwith, adding that his association is making available for download new signs that member stores can use to inform customers of the new minimum age to buy tobacco.
The fact that a national law has changed has raised questions of who can enforce it.
“For my work in what we do as state's attorneys, we only enforce state law,” said Haley Wamstad, state’s attorney for Grand Forks County. “So obviously, retailers will have to comply with both, but it'd be up to the feds to prosecute any violations of federal law.”
Republican state Sen. Ray Holmberg, representing District 17, wondered who would enforce the federal law.
“I can't imagine the federal attorney going after a Holiday Station for selling cigarettes,” he said. “But you know, we could be surprised, too.”
Holmberg said he believed the state Legislature would take action on the issue, though it will take time as it doesn’t meet until Jan. 3, 2021.
“I think it will be, it’ll be addressed,” said Holmberg, who added that, when he was in a branch of a Valley Dairy convenience store, he noticed a sign that said the establishment would only sell to people 21 years of age and over.
Grand Forks Police Cpl. Jon Lampi, who is in charge of tobacco compliance checks in the city, said he could not enforce the new federal law. He provided the Herald with an informational document called Federal Tobacco 21: The Law of the Land, that stated the “FDA will oversee enforcement of the minimum legal sales age at 21.”
Lampi said Grand Forks police would reach out to establishments selling tobacco to inform them of the new federal law change, and that, for now, police would continue to carry out compliance checks for age 18.
“We’re business as normal right now,” Lampi said.
Information provided to the Herald by Grand Forks Public Health showed 19 states, along with Washington, D.C., and the territory of Guam have Tobacco 21 laws, as well as cities and counties in more states. In North Dakota, the Devils Lake City Commission moved to ban sales of vaping products to people younger than 21. That law went into effect on Jan. 1.
Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said the federal law change could lead to a conversation at the city level about whether to update local laws to reflect the federal one.
“I know there'd be support at least to to have a dialogue about it,” Feland said. “I think we deserve the conversation at least.”