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Missouri public safety officials will increase enforcement of age regulations for tobacco sales after Gov. Mike Parson spearheaded a campaign to education youth on the dangers of vaping products.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Tobacco Control Division already had begun concentrating on vaping earlier this year but will increase enforcement efforts after the governor recently tasked a coalition of state agencies with launching the "Clear the Air" campaign, according to DPS Communications Director Mike O'Connell.

The campaign involves the state departments of Health and Senior Services, Elementary and Secondary Education, and Public Safety.

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E-cigarettes, or vaping devices, allow smokers to inhale and exhale aerosol, flavors and other chemicals including nicotine, an addictive chemical derived from tobacco, through an electronic device, which is regulated as a tobacco product by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Since 2016, the FDA has had the authority to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, FDA spokesperson Michael Felberbaum said.

The federal age requirement to purchase and use tobacco is 18. In Jefferson City, the legal age to purchase tobacco products was raised to 21 in 2017.

The FDA has escalated its efforts in monitoring vape products being sold to minors, Felberbaum said.

"Since 2016, the FDA has issued more than 8,000 warning letters to retailers for sale of e-cigarettes and their components to minors," Felberbaum said.

Approximately 1,575 retailers have been fined as of the end of September, he said.

Compliance checks are done at random or if the department receives complaints. Violations are handled by warning letters, civil money penalty complaints and no-tobacco sale orders to retailers, according to the FDA website.

In Jefferson City, 35 sales of tobacco products to minors were recorded from August 2011 through May 2019. Six offenses were e-liquid or e-cigarette sales to minors.

The inspections resulted in 24 warning letters and 11 civil money penalties, according to information on the FDA's website.

ATC regularly assists with the FDA's retailer compliance checks, O'Connell said.

The majority of tobacco compliance checks are staged by the FDA, where a minor goes undercover to attempt to purchase nicotine products from retailers, Felberbaum said.

Missouri's ramped-up enforcement efforts will include a focus on checking in on vape shops and any complaints DPS receives regarding sales to minors, O'Connell said.

"They might not have been getting as much attention because they're newer," O'Connell said. "ATC is going to concentrate on them right now as part of this effort. They'll still be doing enforcement related to tobacco, but we're going to call special attention to vaping for now since this is a growing issue."

By announcing enforcement efforts ahead of time, the department is letting the public and retailers know they are taking the issue seriously. The results of searches will be made public when data is collected, O'Connell said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 1,604 probable cases of electronic vaping associated lung injury — the pulmonary disease brought on by the use of e-cigarettes, whose exact cause is unknown — in 49 states, the District of Columbia and one U.S. territory, as of Tuesday. Thirty-four related deaths have been confirmed, including one Missouri man.

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