Editor's Note: The original article referenced an incorrect bill. The article has since been updated with the correct bill. 

The University of Richmond is considering going tobacco-free. 

This year, Virginia joined a group of 20 other states in raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and tobacco-related products. In February 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam signed HB 2748, prohibiting people under age 21 from purchasing tobacco. 

Since the 1600s, Virginia has been one of the nation’s homes for tobacco. Virginia is the birthplace of tobacco conglomerate Altria, formerly Philip Morris Companies, Inc. 

In recent years, Virginia’s tobacco production has significantly declined. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Virginia produced $86,947,000 worth of tobacco in 2018. This amount pales in comparison to the state now leading tobacco production, North Carolina, which produced $478,545,000 worth of tobacco in 2018.

Although UR still allows tobacco products on campus, it is considering a revision of its tobacco policy. UR has limited its sales of tobacco products throughout recent years despite the fact that Altria remains a large benefactor of UR

At Everything Convenience, students in the past could purchase tobacco products. This is no longer the case. As of July 1, 2019, ETC ended sales of tobacco products, Eliot Cleveland, manager of ETC, wrote in an email.

In September 2017, Tom Roberts, vice president of Health and Well-being, signed the Healthy Campus 2020 pledge, said junior and Wellness Bandit Gabbie Burnham. The pledge declared that UR would make plans to achieve a healthier campus.

These plans could affect tobacco usage at UR. And in 2018, UR began to explore becoming a smoke-free campus, Burnham said. 

Soon after, UR gave permission to the Wellness Bandits to apply for grants provided by the Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative, Burnham said. Grants from the TFGCI are expected to be put towards accelerating a move to becoming a fully tobacco-free campus. 

The TFGCI added UR to a group of 96 other schools that are smoke-free or are considering becoming smoke-free. 

HB 2748 and legislation

HB 2748 had an ally: Altria. Burnham said Altria had pushed for the bill to allow the sale of tobacco products from vending machines.

HB 2748, which went into effect on July 1, 2019, states: “Tobacco products, nicotine vapor products, and alternative nicotine products may sold from a vending machine only if the machine is (i) posted with a notice, in a conspicuous manner and place, indicating that the purchase or possession of tobacco products by persons under 21 years of age is unlawful and (ii) located in a place that is not open to the general public and is not generally accessible to persons under 21 years of age. An establishment that prohibits the presence of persons under 21 years of age unless accompanied by a person 21 years of age or older is not open to the general public.”

The requirements for selling tobacco products at vending machines are a sticker warning about the legal age for purchases — 21 — and the vending machine not being placed near the general public. This allows for tobacco sales in restaurants and other private properties, Burnham speculated.

Altria was also a major supporter of S.1541, known as the "Tobacco-Free Youth Act." The act was proposed in 2019 and is sponsored by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia. 

Throughout their political careers, both senators have received tens of thousands of dollars from Altria and other tobacco lobbying groups. According to the Center for Responsive Policies, Kaine has received $95,826 from Altria and McConnell has received $163,750. The two senators were the second and ninth highest federal recipients of tobacco money in 2018. 

Northam, who signed HB 2748 into law, has received more from Altria than both senators at $207,500. 

According to the Center for Public Integrity, health activists deploy “model legislation,” copycat bills that act as a template for bills. Although health activists have promoted bills to raise the tobacco purchasing age, in some cases, special interest groups such as tobacco companies have worked to embed within these bills benefits for themselves. 

The most pressing information to support the existence of big tobacco-supported model legislation is that many of the bills, including HB 2748 and S.2100, raise the age limit for consuming tobacco products to 21 but lower the enforcement of that policy.

Anti-smoking activists have noticed. 

In a press release supporting S.2100, Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, urged lawmakers to remove this limited enforcement, seeing it as beneficial to tobacco companies and counterintuitive to raising the age limit.

“While we encourage states to pass strong Tobacco 21 laws, given recent tobacco industry behavior, it is highly likely that this provision will be used by the tobacco companies to pass laws that weaken state and local efforts to reduce tobacco use,” Myers said.

On Campus

On any given day at UR’s campus, nicotine use can still be spotted. 

Arabic studies professor Martin Sulzer-Reichel sees a tobacco-free policy as socially ostracizing international students, who make up 11% of the undergraduate population as of fall 2019, according to UR's website.

“People need to be able to make their own decisions,” Sulzer-Reichel said. “I don't believe that you can get rid of bad behavior by criminalizing.” 

Sulzer-Reichel said he thought that many international students came from countries where smoking and drinking at a younger age were normalized and that they would, therefore, become excluded by smoking bans. 

However, he also said many American students tended to drink and smoke more than international students because it is forbidden in the U.S. but not in many of the countries international students hail from.

Junior Clémence Poetschke, a French international student, does not believe that a tobacco ban would ostracize fellow international students.

“I don’t really think that international students use more tobacco products than Americans," Poetschke said. “However, Americans smoke more in parties and use more electronic tobacco than international students.”

Poetschke also said she believed that UR should not go tobacco-free but that designated smoking areas could be a good intermediate step if UR decided to take further steps to go smoke-free. 

UR has yet to make a final decision on going tobacco-free.

International editor Emma Phelps contributed to reporting. 

Contact news writer Ben Wasserstein at ben.wasserstein@richmond.edu.