Cleveland County fighting to raise tobacco age to 21

·3 min read
A high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.
A high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.

Cleveland County is joining a statewide effort to prevent teens from smoking and vaping.

Counties across North Carolina are pushing to raise the legal age to 21 to buy tobacco and vape products.

Jamie Todd, Cleveland County Drug Free Communities project coordinator, said the Substance Abuse Coalition recently solicited around 75 letters of support from local agencies calling for a change in state law. The Cleveland County Public Health Board also recently passed a resolution supporting these efforts.

Todd said it’s critical because the majority of people who pick up cigarettes after 21 are less likely to smoke on a daily basis.

The issue is being tackled on two fronts.

“Bottom line it's really a two pronged approach,” Todd said.

They want to not only raise the age but also require retail permitting, similar to what’s in place for alcohol sales.

Todd said vape addictions among youth are running rampant, and North Carolina does not have a 21 year old tobacco policy that would match federal law. It is one of only 10 states that doesn’t.

He said they want to put a retail permitting process in place that would require establishments to have permits to sell tobacco and vape products.

“Then the state will come in, and local law enforcement will do compliance checks and make sure they sell responsibly and are not selling to underage and if they do sell to underage, they would face fines,” he said.

He said they could potentially look at losing their license if they are habitually noncompliant.

Currently, if a clerk is caught selling to someone underage, only the clerk faces a minimal fine and not the store.

“There’s really not a whole lot of deterrents,” Todd said. “It’s an issue in our community. Tobacco establishments are selling at a high rate. That's really why this retail permitting system is so important.”

He said vaping is “out of control” and according to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey, tobacco use among youth has increased in the past decade, with especially alarming trends in the use of e-cigarettes.

From 2011 to 2019, North Carolina saw more than a fivefold increase in e-cigarette use among middle schoolers and more than a tenfold increase among high schoolers, according to Community Impact North Carolina.

In addition to tobacco, many youth are being exposed to THC products through vaping with many vape stores selling to underage teens.

Todd said they are seeing 14 and 15 year olds with difficult to kick nicotine addictions.

The letters for support were sent to the school system, behavioral health, health care, law enforcement, Cleveland County Minority Council and others.

Those signed letters were sent to state legislators Friday to show them there is a strong desire to make changes in state law.

He said it’s up to the state legislators after this.

Although North Carolina is one of only 10 states who haven’t raised the age to 21, Todd said there are benefits to taking their time and creating a strong policy. He said other states that rushed to raise the age have weak laws susceptible to loop holes.

“There’s a lot of people in Cleveland County who support this,” he said. “At the end it's just another means to support our kids.”

Reporter Rebecca Sitzes can be reached at

This article originally appeared on The Shelby Star: Cleveland County fighting to raise tobacco age to 21