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Wisconsin can’t enforce tobacco age at 21 because of state law, causing confusion at stores

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MADISON (WKOW) -- In December, President Donald Trump signed a bill that raised the federal tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21, but in the month since then, dozens of states -- including Wisconsin -- have not been able to enforce it.

"While the feds say you can't sell to anyone under 21, we can't enforce that here, because our laws say nobody under 18," said Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.

He says new laws usually give industries a few months notice before they go into effect, but the new federal tobacco age went into effect the day the president signed it.

"Every grocer and convenience store across the country was caught off-guard, because this isn't how you're able to comply to the law," Scholz said.

Right now, only 18 states have raised their tobacco purchasing age to 21, according to Tobacco 21. That means the other 32 states are in the same situation as Wisconsin -- law enforcement can't enforce a 21-year-old purchase age, so stores have to choose for themselves.

"What you have in the marketplace is a disjointed situation where some are selling and some aren't," Scholz said.

He says stores trying to follow the federal law could lose business to those who follow the state law, which he's brought to the attention of Wisconsin lawmakers.

"They understand the plight that we're in and the awkward situation that we've been forced to be in," he said. "I think that they want to find a way to make the changes, to make the accommodations so that... we can all be on the same page."

Scholz says the Wisconsin Grocers Association supports raising the tobacco age to 21, just not the way it was implemented by the federal government.

He says stores need time to train staff, update ID-checking software and change signs, though he's hopeful that if the Wisconsin legislature raises the age to 21 during the next floor period in February, there will no longer be confusion and frustration.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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