By Carl Cooley

Burning questions have come to light for states, local governments and retailers after the nation’s tobacco age limit was raised from 18 to 21 by a federal spending bill, approved on Dec. 20, 2019.

On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the new age limit went into immediate effect for tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes. Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have age limits at 21, but for the 31 states with age limits set at 18—including Wisconsin—all the legalities remain a bit hazy.

Barron County’s current tobacco ordinance is directly tied to Wisconsin State Statute 938.983, which outlaws minors from possessing or purchasing tobacco products. It is through these specific laws that police officers can fine minors for having tobacco.

Counties cannot have a tobacco ordinance that varies from state statute, noted John Muench, corporation counsel for Barron County, so the county’s law can’t change to 21 until the state’s does.

The disparity between the FDA and local laws makes things unclear right now, Muench said. And because of the FDA’s proclamation, Muench refrained from commenting on whether or not local 18- to 20-year-olds could be fined for possessing tobacco.

Shortly before press time Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, 25th Dist. State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, who represents Barron County, said it is her understanding that the new federal law supersedes Wisconsin law.

“I was part of a bi-partisan group of legislators that proposed legislation to raise Wisconsin’s legal age to 21 (last year),” Bewley said in an email.

She said the legislation was part of Senate Bill 364 and Assembly Bill 422.

“It is my understanding the new Federal law pre-empts state laws and sets a uniform age, so no further action is required,” she added.

According to 75th Dist. State Rep. Romaine Quinn, the new law creates unnecessary confusion on the state level.

“It looks like this law will supersede Wisconsin law, but there are some questions about which agencies are going to be responsible for enforcement, and how the transition will work,” Quinn said Tuesday, Jan. 7. “By changing federal law without thinking about the consequences for states, Washington has created a large amount of unnecessary confusion,” he added.

Asked on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, about the new law, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said he was still looking into the matter.

In the meantime, the Wisconsin Department of Health is sending a different message.

“The guidance we’ve been given is that while the Wisconsin law has not been changed to match the new Federal law, Wisconsin retailers who sell nicotine products must immediately comply with the Federal law by not selling these products to those under 21 years old,” said Laura Sauve, a registered nurse who is public health program manager and health officer for the Barron County Depaxrtment of Health and Human Services.”