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Ravnsborg Not Eager to Enforce Higher Tobacco Age

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is standing up to big government… by sitting idle. Included in the spending bill Donald Trump signed just before Christmas was a provision raising the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. The law gave Health and Human Services 180 days to write the rules concerning federal enforcement, but the Food and Drug Administration updated its website last week to declare, “It is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes – to anyone under 21. FDA will provide additional details on this issue as they become available.”

Research indicates this change may prevent 223,000 premature deaths, but pro-life Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg office’s doesn’t sound very eager to save those lives in South Dakota:

“This is a federal law, who enforces it, who prosecutes it…,” said Tim Bormann, the chief of staff for the South Dakota Attorney General. “The state doesn’t know how to enforce this.”

The state has laws and penalties for tobacco sales and related use that apply to those under 18.

Bormann said local police, local sheriff’s offices and state county attorneys are responsible for enforcing the state law.

Also, the FDA has not updated regulations in relation to the new federal law which leads to questions about enforcement and when the new law could be enforced, Bormann said.

“I don’t want to say we were left hanging but we were left hanging,” Bormann said.

…He said tobacco retailers should err on the side of caution but “do what you think as a retailer is right” [Rae Yost, “New Tobacco Law Leaves Questions About Enforcement,” KELO-TV, 2019.12.27].

The South Dakota Retailers Association says what is right is to follow federal law.

Bormann says he spent at least a day and a half reading the new law. During that intensive study, he surely read Section 604 (one of only two sections of the spending bill dealing with the tobacco purchase age), which amends existing statute to say we don’t get full substance abuse block grants unless our state law bans tobacco sales to folks under 21. We won’t lose our federal funds completely if we don’t comply, but the law will cut our block grants by up to 10%. That threatened reduction is a break from current tougher rules that dock states cumulative 10%s each fiscal year of noncompliance, up to a maximum of 40% after four years of failing to properly address underage tobacco use.

But Section 604 puts some sharper teeth in the random compliance checks that the feds already require states to conduct on tobacco retailers. For every percentage point by which the rate of underage sales violations exceeds the federal violation rate goal, states will have to commit 1% of their substance abuse allocations to enforcing the minimum tobacco sales age. The federal violation rate goal currently appears to be 10%. In 371 inspections in South Dakota ruled on by the FDA this year from January 1 through November 21, 95 found sales to minors—26%. So under Section 604, we’d have to divert 16% of our substance abuse funds to dropping the hammer on inattentive tobacco retailers.

Hmmm… Governor Noem still owes Minneapolis advertiser Broadhead LLC about $400K for her “I’m On Meth™” campaign; she won’t want to give up any federal money. I’d say we could expect the Governor to throw a tobacco-21 bill in the hopper in the next two weeks… but luckily for her and our budget, Section 604 gives states a three-year transition period and authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “use discretion” in enforcing the grant requirements for two more years. So who knows—we might have to wait for Governor Sutton to enact the tobacco-21 law in 2023.

Section 604 also clarifies and perhaps toughens the language in existing law concerning these block grants. Previously, statute said states taking these grants had to “enforce the law described in subsection (a) in a manner that can reasonably be expected to reduce the extent to which tobacco products are available to individuals under the age of 18.” Section 604 strikes that language about reasonably expectable reductions in availability of tobacco products and instead requires states to “ensure that retailers do not sell tobacco products to individuals under the age of 21.”

I don’t know what takes AG Ravnsborg’s bloated staff a day and a half to figure out what this new tobacco sales age means for South Dakota. Retailers, don’t sell to anyone under 21. If you do, FDA’s inspectors will catch you, you’ll get a warning letter the first time and a fine the second. Legislators, you don’t get to shrug at this federal law the way Lazy Jason is. You have at least three years to revise South Dakota’s tobacco sales age to 21 or we stand to lose federal substance abuse funds.

But if we enforce this law right away, we’ll save some lives and reduce our public health care costs. Why wait?


  1. Francis Schaffer 2019-12-29 18:40

    The local Casey’s already changed their policy, signage, training. Seems like our law should not be age specific but simply stay in sync with federal law, no need for the legislature to spend valuable time on this non issue.

  2. grudznick 2019-12-29 19:26

    This could cost a pretty penny when the kids are all toking on bootleg tobaccy and not paying the cigar taxes and pipe fees to the gas stations.

  3. Debbo 2019-12-29 20:54

    Ravsbutt is just not worth a damn. So embarrassing for SD.

  4. John 2019-12-29 21:01

    These well-intentioned morals laws are bullsh!t. One can wed at 18 (or before), join the military and kill for ones country, vote, etc., But have a drink or smoke — oh, gawd, no! Our moronic culture needs 1 age of adulthood. Otherwise it perpetuates extended adolescence.

  5. Disgusted Dakotan 2019-12-29 21:48

    I agree with John..

    @CAH so does this mean you support local enforcement of other federal statutes.. like immigration laws, ban robberies, serial killer murders..

  6. jerry 2019-12-29 22:12

    Most folks do support immigration laws that are fair…not what we see now. Are CAFO’s immune to federal law? The only robberies being committed are done on Wall Street with the blessings of the senate and their leader, Chubby. Captain Crunch and Count Chocula are cereal killers, you spelled it wrong. Here is something for everyone’s enjoyment.

  7. mike from iowa 2019-12-29 23:00


  8. Debbo 2019-12-29 23:07

    I agree with John that there ought to be one age and it should be 18 if that’s when people are eligible for the military. Or else 21 for everything, including military.

    Age limits aren’t as effective at changing behavior as solid educational programs. We need a government that very strictly enforces laws regarding cigarettes and other inhalables with harsh penalties for manufacturers that cheat. IOW, not a GOP government that enables cheaters.

  9. jerry 2019-12-29 23:48

    Military has had age 21 for alcohol for a decade or more. If you’re out of country, that depends on the host country, but for most, it’s 18. Used to be that in South Dakota you could have 3.2 beer at 18, but no whisky.

    Tobacco will kill you man, and that death is ugly. Maybe when you’re 21, the thrill will be gone.

  10. o 2019-12-30 10:40

    Maybe the real question ought to be why cigarettes, a product that will kill you if used exactly as directed, are legal at ANY age in the US.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-30 12:14

    Francis, it’s interesting to see that the folks at the local Casey’s, who probably don’t have law degrees, didn’t need a day and a half studying the law to decide to enforce it.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-30 12:15

    Disgusted, to the contrary: I plan to repeat Ravnsborg’s position on the smoking law and federal jurisdiction the next time some yahoo tries overstepping Constitutional boundaries to turn SDHP into immigration cops.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-30 12:18

    John, interesting that this “morals law” comes to us via the signature of the least moral occupant of the White House.

    I am interested in our dissonance on adulthood. Should we have a single age of adulthood? Is there any medical/psychological/moral justification for having laws that declare different ages of informed consent for different activities?

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-30 12:22

    But Ravnsborg and Noem are both incapable of deep medical/psychological/moral reasoning… and on this issue, perhaps they shouldn’t bother. The bottom line is the bottom line: no matter how quickly the retailers may be choosing to follow this federal law, the state stands to lose money for its substance abuse priorities if it doesn’t amend its own statutes. The retailers won’t oppose it (because, like Big Tobacco, they see T-21 as a compromise to stave off tougher regs), and the only other group that might be inclined to lobby against it, the 18–20-year-old set, won’t show up in big enough numbers to vote to scare any legislators into submission.

  15. bearcreekbat 2019-12-30 12:37

    Cory, there is indeed a medical/psychological basis for setting the age of adulthood, which, in turn, depends on whether we want legally declared “adults” to have fully matured minds. If so, the age should be 25, as science has established that is the age needed for a person to fully mature.

    If not, the age should be 16 years old, which is the age that a child may be transferred to adult court and face adult punishments for crimes.

  16. Debbo 2019-12-30 14:04

    BCB is right about the age of 25. That’s about the age when all systems are Go in the human brain.

    I haven’t met a psychology professional who supports adult criminal trials for teenagers. To me that says we need to make some adjustments in juvenile sentencing laws, not transfer 13 year olds to adult court.

  17. bearcreekbat 2019-12-30 14:12

    Debbo, I may be mistaken but I thought a child had to be at least 16 to be transferred to adult court. I think kids age 10-15 are subject to criminal prosecution only in juvenile proceedings.

    Incidently, the SCOTUS has begun to recognize the inappropriateness of inflicting some adult punishments on kids under 18, including the death sentence and life with no chance for parole or early release upon adequate proof of rehabilitation. This follows another SCOTUS holding a relatively few years ago that kids under 16 can no longer be executed for a crime. before that states could kill children for commiting all sorts of crimes.

  18. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-31 09:35

    If we take that brain science has the final word on adulthood, should we move all of the legal standards for adulthood to 25? No voting, drinking, drafting, contracting, or marrying until 25? Is there any way to look at the brain’s development and say that legally we’ll permit individuals to perform some adult activities at age 16, some at age 18, some at age 21, and some not until age 25?

  19. bearcreekbat 2019-12-31 10:47

    It would make an interesting transformation to base laws on science and facts instead of emotional fear and hate. There are many other areas that could benefit from such a change along with our treatment of young people.

    Cory, I would recommend a system raising the actual voting age to 25, with a companion non-binding opinion vote permitted at age 16. Mature people would make all final decisions with meaningful input from the younger generations.

  20. Debbo 2019-12-31 13:58

    If the age for everything was 25, I venture to guess various college problems associated with alcohol and drug use would diminish. It would also be a welcome simplification of codes.

    I like BCB’s suggestion of a nonbinding advisory vote beginning at age 16.

    In one of my small churches we were having trouble finding people to hold council positions and volunteer for other duties. At the annual meeting I suggested that we change our bylaws to allow voting rights immediately upon confirmation. That would be 13-14 yo.

    Swift rejoinders were that there would be immediate disarray, young ones wouldn’t know what they were doing, etc. Then a member spoke up. “If we allowed them to vote and they took over the council we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.”


    There is no one to blame for the restive and active younger generations but Boomers and Gen X.

    There. Now it seems that I’m arguing against myself. In the present circumstances, younger voters would more likely be a boon than a burden.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-01-01 12:27

    Voting rights for confirmed members, starting right away when they complete confirmation? Interesting concept, Debbo! From a congregation-building perspective, I’d think it would make sense as a way to keep the young people involved. Would you say that confirmation recognizes young people as adults in the eyes of the church, or is there some other rite or practice that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in the church?

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-01-01 12:33

    I’m initially skeptical of a non-binding advisory vote for those under the official voting age: why bother spending public resources, printing and counting ballots, for votes that don’t count?

    But then I think it would be like committee hearings. We let kids testify at the Legislature. We’ve changed our fireworks law because Brock Greenfield brought a little girl to the 2015 Session to ask permission for the great snake reform. Why not let young non-voters weigh in on campaigns?

    But note that committee testimony happens before the real votes. It would seem that, for the youth advisory vote to matter, it would have to happen before the binding votes were cast. More people voted for Hillary than for Donald, but none of the Trumpists have taken the opinion of those Hillary voters into account in their policymaking. Run a nationwide student poll a week before the election, tally the results online, and then tell the grown-ups, here’s what your kids think; consider that when you vote.

  23. Debbo 2020-01-01 14:58

    In the ELCA, when one is confirmed, one is considered a full member of the church, regardless of age. Individual churches set the age for voting.

    I really would have enjoyed 14+ yo being eligible to vote. They could have shaken the church up, gotten the adults attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

    In many, many cases I have found that adults are scared of young people because they may not do things “the way they’ve always been done.” IMO, that’s a bonus.

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