OKLAHOMA CITY -- Across the state, businesses are slapping makeshift signs on their doors to notify thousands of customers that they must now be 21 to buy all tobacco products.

Until two weeks ago, anyone 18 or older could buy traditional cigarettes, electronic-cigarettes, vaping cartridges, smokeless tobacco and cigars.

But, amid growing concern about youth nicotine consumption and e-cigarette product usage, President Donald Trump signed a federal law raising the minimum tobacco purchase age to 21. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration then quickly announced it the law would take effect immediately.

The abrupt shift, though, has left businesses owners, state officials and young, previously legal smokers scrambling.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health estimates that 9% of Oklahoma high school students currently smoke. Nearly 28% used e-cigarettes or vaping devices in 2019. That's up from 16% in 2017.

"Raising the age of sale keeps tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often obtain tobacco products from other students," said Gary Cox, the state commissioner of health, in a statement. "This is a step in the right direction in improving the health of our youth and reducing the harmful health effects on Oklahomans."

Cox advised retailers to comply with the new federal law immediately.

"[It] caught everybody off guard," said Mike Thornbrugh, a spokesman for QuikTrip, a convenience store chain, which operates about 820 locations in 11 states.

Normally, businesses prefer a little bit of leeway to install professional signage, update point-of-sale technology and educate not only employees, but customers as well so everyone has time to prepare, he said.

Some customers have been very upset to learn they suddenly cannot purchase tobacco products, Thornbrugh said.

"Obviously, they're asking a lot of questions why," he said.

Nineteen states already had restricted the purchase age to 21, but Oklahoma was not one.

But Thornbrugh said every state had different rules.

States like Texas were implementing a phase-in period. Lawmakers also offered an exemption for active military personnel.

Now, everyone -- including Native American smoke shops -- is banned from selling to anyone under 21.

Thornbrugh said it's too soon to tell how the change will impact the chain's bottom line because QuikTrip previously started shifting away from tobacco products in favor of fresh foods.

Paula Ross, a spokeswoman with the Oklahoma Tax Commission, said it's difficult to determine how the age increase will impact state revenues. That's partly because some under-age consumers probably will find people to buy tobacco for them illegally, she said.

But the tobacco tax is a significant revenue source for the state. In 2018-19, Oklahoma generated more than $420.9 million in cigarette and tobacco taxes and licenses, according to data released by the agency.

Nationally, 18 to 20 year olds account for 2 to 4% of total cigarette consumption, said Julie Bisbee, executive director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, which aims to reduce tobacco use.

Some experts, though, ultimately believe that few teens will stop smoking as a result of the change, the agency noted.

"I think it's a good first step in helping stem the tide of youth use of nicotine products," Bisbee said.

With nearly 80% of smokers starting before 18, Bisbee hopes increasing the minimum purchase age reduces the pipeline of getting tobacco products from peers.

The state's annual health care costs directly caused by smoking, meanwhile, have topped $1.6 billion, Bisbee said.

An official with the state's Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission said officials are urging Oklahoma businesses to comply with federal law.

But until Oklahoma's current tobacco youth access laws are updated, that agency only has the authority to enforce sales to youth under 18.

Officials said those needing help to quit smoking can call Oklahoma's free tobacco helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit OKhelpline.com.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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