Missouri legislature works to increase tobacco age to 21 to reflect federal law

House Bill 517 passes through Committee on Downsizing State Government.

JOPLIN, Mo. – In December 2019, the federal legal age to purchase tobacco products went up from 18 to 21. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, more than 30 states have updated their state laws to reflect the change. That doesn’t currently include Missouri, but legislators are working to change that.

“We thought it was easiest for us to pass as a state level to ensure that all municipalities across the state are 21, and also to provide some consistency,” says Representative Dan Shaul.

House Bill 517 would increase the age to purchase tobacco products in Missouri to 21. This part of the bill would bring the state up to par with the federal law — since all retailers have been required to sell only to those over 21 since December 2019, regardless of the state they’re in. Shaul explains that it would do more than that. After tobacco 21 was passed back in ’19, he says they saw municipalities across the state pass ordinances that mirrored the federal law — which caused confusion for consumers and store owners.

“It’s a complete level playing field across the state,” says Shaul.

The bill would also make it so that municipalities and county governments cannot enact their own tobacco regulations.

“The states have to adopt this language. If they don’t, they lose out on funding,” says A.J. Moll, Executive Director of Missouri Smoke Free.

Missouri Smoke Free is a non-profit that advocates for tobacco harm reduction. A.J. Moll, the groups executive director, supports the bill — saying it’s simple legislation that makes sense.

“Currently we have kind of a hodgepodge of laws across the state. So, you might be able to purchase tobacco at 18 in one city over, and at 21 at another city over.  It kind of confuses retailers. So, this is gonna put everything together ” explains Moll. “It’s a solid bill. It’s very clean, it’s very simple. We’re all for local control, but when you’ve got a hodgepodge of laws across the state and retailers don’t know what to do, and minors and young adults don’t have any idea what the law is, it creates a problem.”

“It’s a non issue. I mean, this issue is done and over. We’ve been talking about it for years now. It’s a federal law, it’s 21, and Missouri just needs to be on board and compliant just like all the other states.”

But the American Heart Association opposes the bill.

“We know that Missouri is not a one size fits all state,” says Maura Gray, Missouri Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association.

Gray says that taking away local government’s ability to enact their own tobacco regulations would harm the people they govern.

“It was our local governments that were the first ones to pass tobacco 21 ordinances, and they were also the first ones to pass smoke free laws. And so we want to be able to give them the ability to pass these kinds of ordinances,” says Gray. “Local governments should be able to innovate at the local level, and the states should be able to help them do that and should support them in that endeavor. It’s our local governments who know what’s best for their communities because they’re the ones that work in and around them.”

On April 21st, the bill was passed through the Committee on Downsizing State Government. It now has to go through the rules committee before going to the full House.