Three of four bills introduced on Capitol Hill to boost the legal smoking age to 21 have the full support of Altria, the biggest of the Big Tobacco companies. But why would a company that owns Philip Morris and more than a third of the JUUL vaping empire support raising the smoking age when it needs teenage smokers to sustain its profits?

That’s the question Salt Lake City’s KSL News Radio investigation set out to answer, and what they discovered about the proposed bills and their supporters is alarming.

For Altria, support of the “Tobacco to 21” movement appears to be a cleverly deceptive pitch aimed at staying profitable.

For some lawmakers who now support the bills when they’ve opposed similar measures in the past, it’s about preserving corporate profits and valuable campaign donations, even if that means sacrificing the health of teens.

Tobacco policy expert Dr. Ruth Malone told KSL News Radio that it’s unlikely Big Tobacco has had a change of heart in supporting the bills. That’s because the industry absolutely needs adolescent smokers to ensure its adult customer base continues to grow.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before they’re of legal age, so the underage population is where the industry plants its seeds. If Big Tobacco truly limited its products to adults, its customer base would be a small fraction of what it is today.

“The fact is, it isn’t a sustainable business model without young people smoking,” Dr. Malone told KSL.

She also believes that Altria’s support of the age-increase bills is an extension of an old secret strategy it called “Project Sunrise,” a plan it implemented back when the company was called Philip Morris.

Project Sunrise

Leaked internal documents showed that under this plan, executives aimed to “minimize the effectiveness of the anti-tobacco industry” by working with select individuals to steer the smoking debate away from “bans on tobacco advertising” and toward “youth access to the tobacco.” The company did this because it knew age restrictions weren’t effective deterrents to youth smoking.

By focusing on raising the legal smoking age, the bills help promote tobacco products as something “cool” and “adult,” at least in the minds of kids – a “forbidden fruit” strategy that effectively deflects attention away from the negative health risks of smoking.

“They really like positioning tobacco as something cool that you get to do when you’re 21 or 18,” Dr. Malone told KSL. She also observes that these age-limit bills lack teeth when they’re not supported with tough, meaningful measures.

“Just having a law saying you can’t buy it doesn’t really stop it from happening,” she told KSL.

A deeper look at the Altria-supported tobacco bills floating in Congress, as well as bills already passed by state legislatures, bears this assertion out.

Tobacco legislation

Some of the tobacco bills passed in state legislatures with Altria’s support are Trojan horses because they look like a gift on the outside, yet inside they contain provisions designed to protect Big Tobacco’s profits.

John Schachter, Communications Director for Tobacco-Free Kids told KSL that some of the state-level Tobacco to 21 bills block local regulation of tobacco products. Language contained in the bills may relax FDA regulations, block laws barring flavored vape products, and essentially bar local governments from enacting stronger measures to suppress tobacco sales. In other words, Big Tobacco supports boosting the smoking age, but only in exchange for rules that would make it easier for them to market to kids.

For instance, one bill proposed by Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt includes “subtle language that would allow Altria’s new e-cigarette, iQOS, to get around some of the FDA regulations designed to keep these products away from kids,” according to KSL.

Other proposed bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Rep. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), contain language that would allow vaping industries to keep manufacturing flavored products that appeal mostly to teens. As with other questionable legislation that puts the health and safety of Americans in the back seat, there is a money trail from the special interests to the campaign accounts of the bill’s sponsors. All of the legislators supporting Tobacco to 21 bills have received thousands of dollars from lobbyists working for Altria and other tobacco companies.

However, in its investigation, KSL found one Tobacco to 21 bill in Washington that Altria doesn’t support. That bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), would require graphic health warnings on cigarette packages, extend FDA regulations on vaping devices, block online tobacco sales, ban flavored pods for JUUL and other vaping devices, and seriously restrict Big Tobacco’s abilities to market to kids.

“The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act makes clear that we will not tolerate the proliferation of slick new products purposefully designed to appeal to young people to get them addicted to nicotine and tobacco,” Rep. Pallone said in a statement. “Congress must act to reduce youth nicotine addiction by making it clear that selling tobacco products to kids is illegal …  We cannot afford to wait – we are on the cusp of losing an entirely new generation to a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”

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