(WFRV) – The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has launched a public education campaign reminding Wisconsinites the minimum legal sales age for tobacco and vape products is 21 years old.

Officials with the DHS say that the campaign’s importance is underscored by recent Synar Surveys, which are the annual statewide assessments of the retailer violation rate for underage sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes or vapes.

According to the Synar Survey, in 2022, the rate at which retailers sold tobacco and nicotine products to underage purchasers was 11.9%, more than double the pre-pandemic rate of 5.5%. The 2022 rate fell from 14.1%, the highest rate in over a decade.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Synar Survey monitored tobacco and vape sales to those under 18 years old. However, the most recent surveys monitored sales to those under the age of 21.

The change follows a federal increase in the legal tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 at the end of 2019. The statewide retailer inspection program was also interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and underage tobacco and vape sales skyrocketed.

 “Nearly 7900 Wisconsinites die every year from preventable tobacco-related disease. Young people can become addicted before they are old enough to understand the risks,” said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge. “Following the Tobacco 21 law can save lives.”

The ‘Tobacco 21’ campaign will include messages from both the public and tobacco retailers via television and digital ads. Officials say that social media posts and in-store signage will also be a part of the initiative.

 “We thank the majority of Wisconsin retailers who comply with federal law and do their part to prevent underage tobacco and vape use, but we’re still very concerned by the high rate of noncompliance,” said Deputy Secretary Standridge. “Tobacco retailers are obligated to follow the federal law and make sure that they only sell tobacco and e-cigarettes to customers who are age 21 and older.”

Wisconsinites who want help to quit commercial tobacco can call 1-800-QUIT NOW or text “READY” to 200-400 for free assistance.