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Wisconsin police can't enforce new tobacco 21 law without state law change; change proposed

Wisconsin police can't enforce new tobacco 21 law without state law change; change proposed


MADISON — The federal government has raised the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21, up from 18. But, without changes in state laws, local law enforcement officers are not able to enforce the new mandate.

Wisconsin’s state laws still say the minimum age to purchase tobacco or vape products is 18.

Since local law enforcement agencies enforce state laws and not federal laws, police departments can’t really do anything if a business continues to sell tobacco or vape products to 18-, 19- or 20-year-olds.

If a gas station, for example, were found to be selling cigarettes to customers who are 18 to 20 years old, Sturtevant Police Chief Sean Marschke said “I’m not sure how we would proceed on that.”

Federal agents could enforce the nationwide law, but local police departments can’t. There are not many Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents snooping around local gas stations, looking for lawbreakers.

“There’s no teeth to it,” Marschke said of the federal legislation.

President Donald Trump signed the bill raising the age restriction in December, and the FDA later that month announced the restriction is in effect.

The Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, of which Marschke is the president, sent a letter to state legislative leaders on Jan. 15, asking for Wisconsin’s laws to be changed to allow law enforcement to effectively enforce the new federal age minimum.

“Tobacco and vape products have proven harmful even fatal to Wisconsin’s youth. States that have raised the purchase age to 21 have seen a reduction in middle- and high school student use. Without local law enforcement authority to enforce the 21 year age minimum there will likely be no effect on this epidemic,” reads part of the letter, written by Marschke.

The National Academy of Medicine estimates that this change will save 223,000 lives among Americans born between 2000 and 2019. But, the Wisconsin Department of Administration estimates that it will cost the state $11.3 million in lost taxes per year while increasing expenditures by $139,200 yearly in enforcement costs.

If Wisconsin does change its laws to match the federal mandate, state and municipal law enforcement agencies would then be able to fully go after businesses selling to underage smokers.

Punishments start with a fine, Marschke said, but a business that continually breaks the law could have its tobacco sale license revoked.

Bills that would change Wisconsin’s laws have been introduced in the Senate and Assembly, but neither have been voted on yet.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, supports the change, according to an emailed statement from spokeswoman Kit Beyer, but the Legislature is waiting on “further guidance from the federal government” before putting the bill to a vote.


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