Will raising Delaware's smoking age to 21 have any real impact?
A 16-year-old Wilmington youth named Shaquan stood in the open doorway of a home on the city’s north side and took a long pull from a Black and Mild, a popular cigar people also use to dump out the tobacco and load up with marijuana.
A cloud of smoke curled up into his nostrils. He paused, smiled and took another pull.
He does this daily. Sometimes it’s a cigarette or a cigar. Sometimes it’s weed.
“I got stopped by the cops once,” he said.
He was 13. “I was on the East Side at a gas station smoking. They walked up on us, snatched it out of my mouth and crushed it,” he said.
He didn’t have to pay a fine or appear in family court, which is what the current law states. He kept smoking.
To him and his buddies – all under 18 – it doesn't matter that come July 16, anyone in Delaware under 21 caught puffing on tobacco products may not avoid community service, a trip to family court, or fines.
But whether the age is 18 or 21 it has no effect on what they will continue to do.
“They can’t stop what we do out here,” Shaquan said. “If I have to go to court or pay a fine, then that’s what I have to do. I’m going to keep doing what I want to do. I’m grown,” he smiled.
Gov. John Carney signed legislation raising the smoking age to 21. What’s different is retailers and adults who purchase tobacco products for underage youth are solely culpable.
Currently, stores face fines up to $1,000 for selling to underage people, but teens under 18 caught with cigarettes also face the fine. Under the new law, underage smokers caught with tobacco will no longer be penalized.
Delaware will become the 12th state to increase the legal age of purchasing cigarettes to 21. Whether that's a good idea, depends on who you talk to.
“It won’t do anything to stop it out here. They will just get someone older who has a habit to buy cigarettes for them, “ said Frank Brown, 53, of Wilmington. “What do you think a (drug addict) will do if one of these kids tells them they will pay them two dollars to go get a pack of cigarettes from the store? They are going to go get the cigarettes so they can feed their habit."
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Brown visited Concord Deli recently in Wilmington’s north side, where signs for Pall Mall, Newport and other cigarette brands were prominently advertised inside and outside the store.
The owner, who didn't want his name used for fear of repercussions, said he doesn’t worry about getting fined, because he follows the law. But he also is confident kids will find ways to get around it.
“I’ve seen it. They come in here and ask for cigarettes. I ask them for their ID. If you don’t have an ID I don’t sell you cigarettes. They get mad and start yelling, but I tell them I’m calling the police. When they see me reach for my phone, they go away, but then they get their grandma to come buy them. If they are of age and they want to buy cigarettes, what can I do?” he asked.
Taped to the plexiglass in front of the cash register in his store is a state-issued driver's license with a woman's photo that reads: Anyone under the legal age cannot purchase tobacco products. In the middle of the front counter is a flyer he printed personally that states anyone under 27 must show ID to get cigarettes.
“The police send undercover people in here all the time to see if I will sell cigarettes to kids, but I never do. I don’t worry about getting fined. But there are some stores that I know sell cigarettes to kids.”
Rick Bourke is the owner of Vapeii, a Trolley Square vape shop that has thrived in its four-year existence. The new changes befuddle him, he said, because the government allows teenagers to vote and sign up for the military, but wants to stop them from purchasing tobacco products, which are all important.
When the new law goes into effect, it will hurt his bottom line.
“We’ll lose about 20% of our business. That will amount to hundreds of dollars a day for us,” Bourke said. “We are going to lose three years of business from people who have up until now been able to purchase our products.
Vapeii doesn’t offer cigarettes. It offers E-liquid machines and the juice used to fill them, which comes in myriad flavors from cheesecake to guava and strawberry, with varying amounts of nicotine.
People can also buy products such as glass and plastic pipes; water pipes made with intricate designs sit neatly inside of shelves.
“A lot of our customers will probably try to stock up on supplies," Bourke said. "I’m sure people are going to do that at places where they sell cigarettes, too. They’ll probably buy cartons and sell them for a higher price after the law changes.”
Many are skeptical if the law will change much.
Shawn Allen, a former Wilmington employee who has worked with adjudicated youth for many years, is skeptical.
“Are inner city stores going to enforce it?” he asked. “You find these inner-city stores, because they make money, they don’t abide by the laws. We pass legislation for them to abide, but are they going to enforce it and care about the harm young people are doing to themselves if they are making money?”
Allen remembered sneaking cigarettes from his grandmother as a young man.
“It started with cigarettes and made me feel like I was an adult,” he said. He said what worries him is kids who feel the same way and cigarettes spiral into other out of control behavior that leads to someone with a criminal record at 30."
Allen doesn't think the law should get rid of the punishment to young people caught smoking.
“This is the best time to hold them accountable, right now while they are young. Let’s be proactive and look at the overall picture,” he said. Taking away community service or forcing young people to sit through educational videos that teach about the health hazards from smoking creates a bigger problem down the road, he said.
Eliminating penalties for youth doesn’t weigh in the same vein as expunging criminal records for marijuana convictions, but it’s still the right direction to go in, said John Schachter, Director of State Communications for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a DC -based non-profit that advocates for reducing tobacco consumption.
“We strongly support enforcement of the penalties being on the retailers and not the youth,” Schachter said. “Kids are not making adult decisions. They are being lured into a lifetime of addiction. We shouldn’t punish the youth who are already victims.”
Research shows that 95 percent of people who smoke started before 21, which makes raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco one smart way to combat that, he said.
“States are moving in the right direction,” he said.
Ira Porter writes about the people of Delaware and the issues that affect them. Have a story for him? Email email@example.com.