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Why does the country's largest tobacco company support raising the smoking age?

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The largest tobacco company in the country supports raising the smoking age to 21 during the 2019 legislative session.

Two years ago, Altria Group, Inc. — the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, and John Middleton, Inc. — opposed the measure.

What changed?

Senate Bill 21 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, already cleared the hurdle that killed it two years ago. This year, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, named it one of his priorities.

SB 21 narrowly passed a Senate committee, passed the full Senate and passed a House committee. It's now waiting to be set on the calendar for the full House — the chamber it passed two years ago.

In its current form, the bill still allows military members to purchase nicotine products. 

Several industry changes happened between 2017 and 2018. 

E-cigarette use has skyrocketed, especially among middle and high schoolers. According to a recent announcement by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, middle schoolers are using e-cigarettes 50 percent more and high schoolers are using them 80 percent more. 

Jennifer Hunter, Senior Vice President for Altria Group, gave written testimony to lawmakers, earlier this year describing the FDA's announcement spurred on their change of position. 

"We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rates," wrote Hunter. "By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally."

Another major industry development between the 2017 session and the 2019 session was Altria Group's purchase of 35 percent of one of its competitors, e-cigarette company Juul. 

At the time, Altria CEO Howard Willard said: “We have long said that providing adult smokers with superior, satisfying products with the potential to reduce harm is the best way to achieve tobacco harm reduction.”

Critics of the industry saw it differently: Altria hedging its bets on a changing industry. 

"Altria has no interest in reducing the number of people who smoke cigarettes. They see Juul as their failsafe in case the cigarette market keeps declining so that they remain profitable no matter what happens," wrote President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Matthew Myers. "Altria’s interests are served by maximizing sales and profits from both the cigarette and e-cigarette markets, and they have every reason to push Juul to market its products in a way that does the least damage to the cigarette market."

Supporters of SB 21 place more importance on Altria supporting the bill, rather than why they support it.

Dr. John Carlo from the Texas Public Health Coalition says 15, 16, and 17-year-olds usually get nicotine products from the older kids in high school and that is less likely if the legal age goes up.

"It lowers that social circle network, particularly in the younger kids," said Dr. Carlo.

He's happy to have another ally.

"What they're saying is even the industry does not want to see these products being sold to younger people. I think it sends the right message that we're all in this together," said Dr. Carlo.

The bill still needs to pass the Texas House and to be signed by Governor Greg Abbott. 


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