On the door of the Smokers Haven shop in Epsom on Friday, a sign prominently warned customers that the minimum age to buy tobacco products has been raised from 18. So did a sign on the front of the Cumberland Farms on North Main Street in Concord.
That seems straightforward – except the Smokers Haven sign said the minimum is now 19, while Cumberland Farms said it’s 21. And both are sort of correct, although one is more correct than the other.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” said John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association.
Indeed. Consider Capital Beverages on South Main Street.
On Friday, clerk Edward Sanel said he had been cautioned by the owner Thursday that the age to buy all tobacco products had been raised to 19 under a new state law. And that is correct, if incomplete.
After a back-and-forth last year between the Legislature, some of whose members wanted to raise the minimum to 21, and Gov. Chris Sununu, who balked at the change, the minimum age was raised to 19 in the state’s tobacco laws as of Jan. 1. The Liquor Commission prepared a “frequently asked questions” sheet in October which talked about changes to licensing for vape stores as well as an increase in the legal age to 19.
However, before Christmas the U.S. Congress hiked the minimum age to 21 as part of the federal budget that President Trump signed on Dec. 20. Federal law beats state law in this area, so regardless of what state law says, and despite that FAQ sent out by the Liquor Commission, the minimum age to buy cigarettes, cigars, smoking tobacco, and e-cigarettes or vapes in New Hampshire is now 21.
“I didn’t know that,” said Sanel, whose store, like many, has signs telling of the 19-year-old minimum. “I would have known if they had brought new signs about 21.”
That’s exactly the problem, says Dumais, of the Grocers Association. The federal law was rushed over the holiday season with so little fanfare that there wasn’t time for the usual procedures involved when changing something that affects hundreds of stores and thousands of sales every day.
“Our concern is with the (federal Food and Drug Administration’s) opinion that this becomes immediately enforcement, and penalties applied to it,” he said. “The original bill allowed 180 days to write rules, then 90 days to train cashiers on proper procedures.”
“We need to inform workers, we need to inform the public,” he said.
Dumais said he had talked with Mark Armaganian, chief of the New Hampshire Liquor Enforcement, which also enforces tobacco-sales laws as well as liquor-sales laws.
While it is clear that the legal age to buy cigarettes is now 21 in New Hampshire, as in the rest of the country, and identification proving age should continue to be required for tobacco sales, Dumais said any aggressive state oversight to ensure that stores are following the new law may pause until more information is available, such as printing official posters letting customers know.
“The state has said they won’t do any enforcement action toward checking it out until they have a clear understanding of what the federal government’s doing with it,” Dumais said.
The governor’s office issued a statement that Sununu “has instructed the New Hampshire Attorney General to work with the New Hampshire Division of Liquor Enforcement to determine how this new change to federal policy affects New Hampshire.”
Once things settle down, Dumais said, the situation will be easier for stores because some communities in New Hampshire, such as Franklin, had independently raised the age for tobacco sales to 21. The federal law will make it the same everywhere.