SALT LAKE CITY — After President Donald Trump quietly signed a bill that raises the federal legal smoking age to 21 — an age limit that Utah would’ve implemented in 2021 under state law — smokers and e-cigarette users younger than 21 were abruptly cut off from buying tobacco products this week.

In the meantime, retailers and state health departments have so far received little guidance on the law and its enforcement.

“I mean, I’ve been buying tobacco products and vapes for like two, three years now. And all of the sudden I’m getting cut off. So, not cool,” Garrett Higham, 20, said Saturday after he was turned down while trying to purchase vape products at a Murray shop.

Though Higham had heard of the possibility of the law, like others, he didn’t think it would go into effect until later in 2020. Higham uses vape products to quit tobacco, he said, “So I’ve got to figure something else out.”

Now, he said he’ll most likely begin asking friends over 21 to buy products for him, “because that’s the only other way. ... It’s definitely rough. I didn’t expect that,” Higham said.

Confusion over new law

Braden Ainsworth, program manager for the Utah Department of Health’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, said when reaching out to the Food and Drug Administration for information about how and when the law will go into effect, state officials have been referred to a statement on the FDA website.

“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 statement reads in part.

Though the bill doesn’t include an effective date, the FDA’s interpretation “is that it went into effect when President Trump signed the bill on the 20th,” Ainsworth said.

State health departments usually receive more immediate guidance when laws are implemented, according to Ainsworth, but the delay could be a result of the holiday.

Nevertheless, state health officials are cautioning retailers it’s now illegal to sell tobacco products to those under 21, Ainsworth said. The FDA and state health departments each perform compliance checks and enforcement of tobacco law.

“What I’ve been telling the retailers that have been calling is that if the federal government were to come in and do one of those inspections and you weren’t in compliance, then technically you would get a violation,” he added.

Local businesses affected

Some local vape business owners said they believe the new law was a response to the vaping-related illness that’s been linked to black market THC vaping devices.

Ryan Delahuerta, owner of Elite Smoke & Vape in Murray, said he learned of the restriction Friday night and expects the impact of the law to devastate the shop catered to a younger clientele base.

“I unfortunately thrive with a younger crowd. Nineteen to 25 is my bread and butter. It’s just a young, hip shop, and I’d say at this point, that’s 50% (of business),” he said. “It’s devastating to us.”

However, “We’ll survive,” he said over the sound of hip hop music. If necessary, Delahuerta says he plans on changing the store to appeal to older customers.

Also a distributor, Delahuerta said he knows and has spoken to most of the other local vape shop owners. Only about half of them had heard about the new restriction as of Saturday afternoon, he said.

Of the customers left legally unable to purchase the products they use, “Obviously, they’re going to find a way. I think it was just Donald Trump had to do something,” he said, saying that between a flavor ban or the new age restriction, he sees the change as the lesser of two evils for his business.

Hussein Yousef, owner of Murray Vapes, also said the restriction without additional guidance has caused confusion for existing customers, who have asked whether they could be grandfathered in to still buy products.

“None of them were upset with us, but the only problem that some of them face is they were asking questions if we were going to do the same thing that California did,” Yousef said, referring to the way that state grandfathered in those who had already been smoking before a similar age limit went into effect.

“Which makes sense, because if you cut people off cold turkey, it’s like prohibition. When did that help America? People are going be upset, people are going to get mad, and they’re going to do illegal stuff, and they’re going to go to the black market,” Yousef said.

“You’re talking about millions of people, hundreds of companies that are going to be affected by this,” he added.

Jonathan Metzler, owner of the Tinder Box, which caters to a more mature clientele base, said he didn’t expect the change to have a large impact on his business.

However, “they did a really bad job of letting everybody know that it went into effect on the 20th. ... I’ve had a handful of customers who were 19 or 20 who were pipe smokers or cigar smokers who’ve come in who were buying last week and now cannot buy this week. So there has been a little bit of confusion, and I think a little bit of anger.”

‘Protecting the rising generation’

Though the law has caused some confusion, Ainsworth called it an important step forward in helping prevent lifetime addictions.

“These laws are great because what they do is, we know a lot of youths that get access to the products are getting them from their social circles,” he said. By making tobacco products unavailable to 18-year-old high school seniors, the hope is that younger teens will lose their access through friends, according to Ainsworth.

The law comes even as federal and local health officials continue to investigate the vaping-related lung illness that has afflicted thousands of youth across the country.

E-cigarette company Juul Labs, and Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, came out in support of the new age restriction, the Associated Press reported. But some tobacco critics say the companies’ support was an effort to prevent further restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes that are popular among youth, according to the AP.

The American Heart Association said in a statement to the Deseret News it is “heartened” by the age increase but disappointed the bill didn’t include a flavored e-cigarette ban to help stem the youth vaping epidemic.

“The federal bill also leaves out other important measures such as halting online sales of all tobacco products. We are hopeful the Utah State Legislature will use the upcoming months to lead the nation with evidence-based reforms that will truly protect the rising generation from nicotine addiction,” according to the statement.

A 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine showed that raising the smoking age to 21 could prevent 223,000 deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019, including reducing lung cancer deaths by 50,000, according to the American Lung Association.

“I’m glad to see that the federal government saw the momentum that was happening in 19 states,” said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsor of Utah’s HB324, which would have raised the legal smoking age in Utah to 20 in 2020 and 21 in 2021.

Eliason said the bill would have raised the minimum age in phases so as not to impact those between 18 and 21 who had already started smoking. Unlike Utah’s law, the federal age limit also applies to members of the military.

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Earlier this year, the Beehive State became the eighth to pass legislation raising the minimum smoking age to 21. Eliason said that after unsuccessfully running the bill for the two previous years, an inclusion of e-cigarettes garnered the support of the Heart Association, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and tobacco companies.

Eliason said he put his efforts behind the bill at the urging of Utah Department of Health directors, who said it was essential for public health.

“Regardless of the timing of the federal bill, we’ve crafted a good policy for Utah that should save many lives,” Eliason said.

Free resources for those trying to quit using tobacco products are available at

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