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Allison Lee Isley/Journal  

Mount Tabor senior guard Jordan Hunter (1) celebrates following the Mount Tabor Spartans’ 54-48 victory over the Winston-Salem Prep Pheonix in the Pepsi bracket championship basketball game of the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic tournament on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, at the Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Winston-Salem Journal/Allison Lee Isley) 20191229w_spt_spencerpepsi

In 2019, gun violence persisted, the Confederate statue came down, the Dixie Classic got a new name and Business 40 moved closer to reopening

For Winston-Salem, 2019 was the year the statue of an anonymous Confederate soldier came down and new bridges went up over Business 40.

The year got off to a dramatic start locally when Mayor Allen Joines told people assembled on New Year’s Day for an Emancipation Proclamation ceremony that the city had sent a letter to the United Daughters of the Confederacy giving that group until Jan. 31 to remove the Confederate Soldiers Monument that had stood downtown at the corner of North Liberty and West Fourth streets since 1905.

The UDC started a campaign in 1903 to raise money put a Confederate monument in what was then Court House Square, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Similar statues in Chapel Hill and in Durham had been toppled had been toppled earlier in the year by protesters who saw them as a symbols of white supremacy. Here, nothing worse than mild vandalism had taken place. City officials, citing public-safety concerns, said the statue was a nuisance.

The UDC vowed to keep the statue in place, and it was game on.

An anti-statue group called Hate Out of Winston and the pro-statue Heirs to the Confederacy planned same-day, same-place rallies near the statue. Before those events could be held, anti-statue advocates packed a meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council to denounce the statue, and some on the other side complained they didn’t get a chance to speak. Statue supporters said the statue memorializes dead soldiers, not hate.

Meanwhile, Winston Courthouse LLC, the owner of the former county courthouse (now an apartment building) where the monument stood also demanded its removal.

The weather was nasty and cold and so was the mood on Jan. 13, when the two sides turned out in blustery weather to shout things like “No hate, no KKK, no fascist USA” or, in the case of one statue backer, give the other side a middle finger. Police kept the sides on opposite sides of West Fourth Street. The statue supporters were outnumbered 3-to-1, and things got tense when it appeared that some anti-statue protesters were edging toward them across the street.

The dueling demonstrations ended peacefully, though it later emerged that some statue supporters had hired security personnel who were asked to leave by police and did so.

The Jan. 31 deadline came and went with nothing happening, and the city used the tense quality of the statue protests as another plank in its argument for the statue’s removal.

In court, the UDC argued in vain for a delay, asserting that the statue had to stay in place until the court could rule on its ownership and whether a state public-monuments law forbade its removal.

Scattered protests continued both at the statue and City Hall. And both sides took to social media to mount attacks. Then on March 12, a contractor’s work crew took down the statue as people looked on, and carted it off to storage. The city said it had plans to eventually put the statue in Salem Cemetery, a private cemetery that has a section where Civil War veterans are buried alongside each other.

In May, the court dismissed the UDC case, saying that the organization had no right to sue over the statue because it claimed no ownership of it. At year-end, the statue remained in storage, and a legal appeal by the UDC was before the N.C. Court of Appeals with no indication on when the case might be resolved.

Dixie Classic Fair

Fresh on the heels of the statue controversy, another one touching on the sensitive issues of race erupted in April when a group approached the city to call for a new name for the Dixie Classic Fair. The group said the word Dixie was redolent of the Old South and segregation.

As opposite sides geared up, the city sent mixed and confusing signals on what would happen. At a meeting of the city’s Fair Planning Committee, city administrators told the original petitioners that a name change was a done deal and that the only question was what the new name would be. Committee members objected to a news release that they said made it look as if they were originating the push for a new name.

Less than 24 hours later, city officials said it was possible Dixie could stay in the name, and set up a public hearing at the fairgrounds. It was a raucous meeting, attended by more than 300 people. The city also received more than 11,000 responses to a survey, with an overwhelming majority calling for the name to remain the same.

The Fair Planning Committee in June asked the city to “reconsider” the fair name and take time to get a new name right. The city proceeded with talk of hiring a consultant to test-drive possible new names with focus groups and the like. But that didn’t sit well with some city council members, who said they needed to pick up the ball and get the credit — or blame — for what happened on the name.

On Aug. 19, before a packed council chamber, the council voted 5-2 to change the fair’s name, leaving the choice open.

More confusion followed when city staff members, citing council sources, put forward the suggestion of Twin City Classic Fair in September, only to have council members shoot down the idea. As the council approached a decision in October, the choice seemed to be between Carolina Classic Fair, recommended by a city committee or Piedmont Classic Fair, a choice preferred by others on the city council.

In the end, the mayor didn’t have to break a tie: The council voted 6-2 for Carolina Classic, after turning aside the Piedmont challenge by a council minority. The new name goes into effect in 2020.

A violent year

After a year in which one act of shooting violence after another made headlines in Winston-Salem, even more horror hit home on Dec. 20 when city employee Steven Haizlip went to his workplace at a city sanitation facility and shot a co-worker to death before engaging police in a gunfight that ended his own life.

Haizlip and the victim, co-worker, Terry Cobb, had had a long-standing dispute. Other employees ran from the Johnson Municipal Services Center on Lowery Street as the gunfire erupted.

Another worker was injured when he wound up in Haizlip’s line of fire, and a police officer was also injured. Both were expected to recover, but city workers and the community were shaken by the violent episode.

Earlier, the sight of more than 100 law-enforcement officers going door to door in three Winston-Salem neighborhoods on Aug. 29 appeared to crystallize the frustration both law enforcement and residents felt about ongoing violence in the city.

The immediate cause of the police canvass was the death of 5-year-old Alberto Rios Navarette on July 6 in the Cole Ridge Circle Apartment, plus two other homicides on Cole Road and in woods off Timlic Avenue.

Alberto had simply been playing in his living room when he was killed by a bullet fired outside the house.

The law-enforcement officers included police from Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, sheriff’s deputies, FBI agents, U.S. marshals, drug-enforcement agents, and others. Joining them were local residents, ministers and translators.

A look at gun violence by the Winston-Salem Journal on Sept. 1 found 17 homicides and a rash of shootings in the city. The shootings included mass shootings on Cody Drive and at the Nova Lounge on North Cherry Street that police believed to be connected to another on Ivy Drive in which no one person was injured but more than 50 shots were fired.

The May 18 shooting on Cody Drive was deadly, taking the lives of two men and leaving five others with gunshot injuries and one person pistol-whipped. One of those killed was hip-hop artist Jalen Cockerham.

No one was killed at Nova Lounge on April 7, but seven people were shot and wounded.

The fatal shooting of Julius Randolph “Juice” Sampson on Aug. 6 outside BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse at Hanes Mall took on racial overtones when it was learned that Sampson and the man charged with shooting him, Robert Anthony Granato, reportedly both used racial epithets in an altercation before the shooting.

Although police said there was no evidence the shooting was racially motivated, people on social media were saying Granato, who is white, targeted Sampson because he was black, or that the incident arose from Sampson defending a female bartender at the restaurant. The state NAACP called for an investigation.

People held a candlelight vigil at the site of the shooting.

The Business, as in 40

The Business 40 revamp clicked along at a fast pace during 2019, but not fast enough to get the road open by the end of the year, nor fast enough to stop some business owners from blaming it for having to throw in the towel on their businesses.

The milelong section of Business 40 through downtown was actually closed on Nov. 17, 2018, and highway planners were optimistic that all their advance warnings had paid off. While there were logjams, especially in the evenings, by and large people started saying that things didn’t seem as bad as they had feared.

The first good news of the year was when the new Fourth Street bridge opened. While that route is not a major connector, the opening provided an extra north-south link and gave promise of things to come.

But the biggest stir that winter was when Joines, the city’s mayor, let slip on a morning TV show that there was a possibility Business 40 could reopen by the end of the year. Several hours and a news conference later, state highway officials said that while it was indeed theoretically possible, a reopening in 2019 was a long shot that could happen only if the weather was perfect.

Broad Street opened on April 30, creating a new way for people to cross the work zone and ahead of the season’s first home baseball games at BB&T Ballpark.

The new Main Street bridge opened May 1, followed by Church Street bridge May 24. The opening of Main and Church allowed for the demolition of the Marshall and Cherry street bridges.

Then on July 13, the Liberty Street bridge opened. But it was too late to save the Repeat Offenders antique shop, where owner Patti Hamlin said that construction had killed her Christmas sales. Other business owners on the south side of the work zone said they too were hurting, but even places on Trade Street were feeling the pinch.

Hutch & Harris, a restaurant that had been an early leader in downtown renovation, closed. Owner Greg Richardson listed Business 40 construction woes among the factors.

August 30 saw the reopening of the eastern reaches of the new Business 40 downtown, as ramps linking Main Street to U.S. 52 over Hamilton Bridge went into service.

The coming of autumn saw crews switching to a seven-day work week in a bid to speed construction. And fresh hopes were raised for a speedy finish when state highway officials said in November that the contractors could get their greatest incentives by getting cars moving on the new road by Dec. 31.

By early December, rain and cold weather had dashed that hope, but officials remained optimistic about opening the new road to traffic early in 2020.

Banking on it

The weather wasn’t that cold but the mood sure was on Feb. 7, when people woke up to find that BB&T Corp. and Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc. would merge and have a new Charlotte headquarters.

Even though BB&T came out the majority owner of the new entity, the loss of a corporate headquarters here was a shocking development that brought the mayor to the steps of City Hall to make the best case for lemonade.

Joines said BB&T officials had assured him the new bank was committed to keeping a corporate presence here and would continue to carry out charitable giving here and similar activities.

In the days following, two other local financial institutions, Piedmont Federal Savings Bank and Truliant Federal Credit Union, emphasized their plans to stay local. By summer, BB&T and SunTrust had announced Truist Bank as the new corporate name. Truliant sued, claiming infringement of trademark.

Although the long-term implications of the BB&T-SunTrust deal remained to be seen, BB&T was able to burnish its reputation for local giving when the bank, city and Forsyth Technical Community College officials announced a “college guarantee” program designed to give needy high school graduates financial help to attend the community college.

A schooling

A change in the political makeup of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board in late 2018 led off what was to become a year of sometimes dramatic developments in school governance, including a change in superintendents and the resignation of a board member after a controversial tweet.

Democrats took control of the school board in the 2018 election and named newcomers Malishai Woodbury as chairwoman and Barbara Burke as vice chairwoman.

The new board didn’t have long to wait for action: Mark Johnson, the state superintendent of public instruction, and himself a former member of the local school board, made a surprise visit to Forsyth County on Feb. 8 and came out of a closed-door meeting with the school board to announce that Beverly Emory, the superintendent since 2013, would be taking a job in Johnson’s administration.

That left the board in charge of finding a replacement, but in the meantime, Deputy Superintendent Kenneth Simington was named interim superintendent. There followed a series of community forums to get input on the superintendent selection process, along with surveys. By late spring, the board had 44 applications in hand, soon winnowed down to fewer than 20.

The new superintendent turned out to be Angela Pringle Hairston, who came to Forsyth County from Georgia and was sworn in Sept. 3.

Then, just a couple of days later, school board member Lori Goins Clark abruptly resigned, as social media swirled with rumors that Clark had sent a racially insensitive text to Dana Jones, another board member, in reference to Simington. Clark and Jones are white; Simington is black.

It turned out that the text contained a cartoon image of a cartoon character called Mushmouth from the TV show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”

Clark was replaced by Marilyn Parker, an old hand at school board service who had been appointed as recently as 2017 to take the place of Johnson, after he was elected state superintendent.

Meanwhile, several citizen groups were demanding that the schools make African American history a mandatory part of the curriculum, and that debate occupied much of the year.

Hairston recommended that the schools offer four electives in African American, Latin American and American Indian studies as well as ethnic literature, but a school committee rejected that approach.

Hairston’s idea won out in the end, as the school board voted down the mandatory African American course and approved the four-option electives.

Who’s your rep?

Thanks to a couple rounds of court-ordered redistricting, many Forsyth County residents found themselves in new General Assembly or congressional districts for the 2020 election cycle.

But not to worry: The 2020 census will require lawmakers to do another complete makeover in a year or so.

The fun got started on Sept. 3, when a three-judge panel rejected the state’s legislative districts as a case of “extreme partisan gerrymandering” meant to help the electoral chances of Republicans.

The newly drawn districts in some cases bore little relation to the former ones. N.C. House District 74, which had looped around the northern fringes of Winston-Salem, landed over in the southwestern corner of the county.

District 75, which had stretched across the south, moved to the east. District 73, a Yadkin County district that reaches into Forsyth, swapped eight precincts around Lewisville for 11 different ones in northwestern Forsyth. The changes were not as dramatic for the centrally located 71st and 72nd.

The changes were big in the N.C. Senate as well. The 31st District, which had basically been a suburban district arcing around central Winston-Salem, became an eastern Forsyth district with a southwest peninsula connecting to Davie County. The new 32nd included western Forsyth and parts of central Winston-Salem.

The net result of all the shuffling around was that a political analyst found District 74 in the House and District 31 in the Senate more competitive but still leaning Republican.

The bigger change was in Forsyth County’s fate in the U.S. Congress.

Formerly part of the 5th District, a Republican stronghold extending west to the Tennessee border, Forsyth County found itself split between a new 6th and 10th.

The 6th, which includes most of Winston-Salem, is packaged with all of Guilford County and has a strong Democratic tilt. The 10th, with parts of western and northern Forsyth, is an elongated district that reaches from Rockingham County on its northeast side to Lincoln County in its southwest. It is a likely Republican district.

Whether a Forsyth County resident could win in either district remains to be seen, although it won’t be for lack of trying: The filing period found Forsyth residents ready to contest both districts.

Forsyth has only 33% of the residents of the 6th and a little less than 15% of the 10th. In the 6th, N.C. House District 72 Rep. Derwin Montgomery and Ed Hanes, the former representative of District 72, both Democrats, filed to run. In the 10th, Forsyth County Republican Ralf Walters tossed his hat into the ring.

Pass the plate

A venerable Winston-Salem congregation found itself temporarily without a home when it lost its church building and property in a bankruptcy proceeding that came to a head in the spring of 2019.

The Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church, founded in 1893, defaulted on its mortgage in 2018 and owed Tennessee-based Apex Bank $3.3 million when it faced a May 24 foreclosure sale.

The mortgage covered the new sanctuary the church had built on Lansing Drive in 1999 and the next-door Family Life Center built in 2000.

During the bankruptcy proceedings, Apex had criticized the church for paying its pastor, Bishop Sheldon McCarter, a salary of close to $100,000 per year, plus a yearly housing allowance of $57,000, $35,000 in health insurance and a $15,000 car allowance.

The church offered to cut McCarter’s salary but let him keep an unspecified amount of “love offerings” given by the congregation. The church also wanted more time to come up with financing.

A war of words developed between Apex and the church. The church put an invocation against Satan and Apex bank on its web page, and Apex said in a court document that McCarter had effectively perjured himself when he said the church could work under a previous reorganization plan.

Meanwhile, people in the community came out in support of the church and its pastor. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough called publicly on Facebook for people to support the church, and McCarter said he had gotten words of support from the mayor and members of the city council.

On May 22, bankruptcy Judge Catharine Aron ruled that the church had not shown it could afford to pay off its debt, and ordered the bankruptcy sale to go forward.

Two days later, Apex Bank was the only bidder in the foreclosure sale, but the drama wasn’t quite over: Apex went to court in early June saying the church was stalling on leaving the property. The judge gave the church one more Sunday in the building.

During the last service, McCarter called the events “a temporary interruption,” and the church found a new place to worship.

At year’s end, Apex Bank still owned the church property on Lansing Drive.

Revealing images

In February 2019, images were revealed in the 1970s-era yearbooks at Wake Forest University and other colleges and universities, which depicted students in blackface and wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. WFU officials described the images as deplorable, racist and demeaning toward black people.

For example, the 1976 Howler yearbook contains a photograph of two members of the Sigma Pi fraternity at WFU, with one wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood and the other student in blackface while a white female student stands between them.

A year later, the Howler yearbook had a photograph of two female students in blackface wearing antebellum clothes. That photo was embedded within the pictures of other students in the yearbook.

In September 2019, a group of Wake Forest University faculty and staff members received racist and homophobic emails that called for a purge of minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.

“The emails were intentionally inflammatory, using racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and discriminatory language,” Wake Forest said in a message to campus community.

Although the wording of the emails was intimidating and threatening, “no direct and specific threat was made,” Wake Forest said.

College admissions investigation

In March 2019, Bill Ferguson, Wake Forest’s head volleyball coach, was among 12 defendants nationwide who was charged with racketeering and other offenses in a massive national college admissions bribery case that includes wealthy executives and Hollywood actresses.

Ferguson is one of 12 defendants who were either collegiate coaches or involved with private athletics groups in what federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts call Operation Varsity Blues. Ferguson has pleaded not guilty.

Ferguson, who joined Wake Forest’s staff in June 2016, is alleged to have illegally accepted $100,000 from a foundation to help an individual gain admission to Wake Forest.

Ferguson resigned as coach in August 2019.


With a new sheriff at the helm of county law enforcement came a new policy on dealing with people who were suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough, a Democrat who was elected as the first black sheriff in Forsyth County in 2018, made waves in February when he announced he would end the contract that allowed U.S. Immigration and Customs to detain such immigrants when it ran out in April.

Immigration had been a flash point in the 2016 presidential election, as candidate then President Donald Trump promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and get tougher on illegal immigration.

And Kimbrough wasn’t alone: Democrats elected as sheriffs in Mecklenburg and Wake counties also changed their policies on aiding ICE.

Kimbrough made his announcement following a rally and news conference in support of a man from Honduras who was being held at the county jail following his arrest.

Kimbrough said his office would never actively look for immigration violators. He said deputies would continue enforcing criminal law and lock up violators. Kimbrough said use of the detainer document, called the I-203, could be seen as a violation of Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights.

The N.C. General Assembly, controlled by Republicans, passed legislation in June to force the hands of Kimbrough and other sheriffs opposed to using the detainers. Along the way, Kimbrough and the other sheriffs found themselves accused of being “sanctuary sheriffs” by a lawmaker. Kimbrough said that if the state passed a law requiring him to use the detainers, he would follow it.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation, saying it was about “scoring partisan political points,” but the law hadn’t been passed by veto-proof majorities.

As the year ended, it seemed likely that the last word hadn’t been heard on the contentious issue.


If you thought you’d get this far into a story and not hear about the return of the Scooters, you thought wrong.

After months of absence enforced by a city ban, Winston-Salem officials approved a new set of regulations in March to set up a process to allow electric scooters to once more zip around town, although it wasn’t until October that actual scooters could be seen rolling around legally on streets and illegally on sidewalks.

The Bird company that put its scooters out more or less by ambush in 2018 was not involved in the latest scooter rollout, and in fact didn’t submit a bid to be one of the companies the city picked to provide the service.

Instead, Spin scooters showed up on street corners ready to use. Alas for scooter fans, the Spins didn’t spin long: By mid-November the Zagster company managing the Spin scooters abruptly pulled them off the street, claiming a need for routine maintenance.

City officials said that was not true, and that in fact they were waiting to get insurance documents from the company.

In December, VeoRide, the other scooter company approved by the city, introduced its scooters to town. Riders rode, although some disliked having to leave the scooters in designated drop-off areas.

Sudden enforcement of age-21 tobacco restrictions catches retailers, customers by surprise

The age-21 tobacco era began quietly in North Carolina and across the country with a brief acknowledgement by the Trump administration Friday.

The three-sentence statement from the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the restrictions signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20 went into effect nationwide that day.

The law gave the federal government 180 days to write new regulations barring the sale of tobacco to those under 21, plus another 90 days for those regulations to go into effect.

The FDA told The Associated Press on Friday that “because the change simply increased the age limit in existing law, it was able to go into effect immediately.”

The sudden enforcement of the restrictions has caught local tobacco and vaping shops, as well as the National Association of Convenience Stores, by surprise with plenty of unanswered questions.

  • Why weren’t those ages 18 to 20 grandfathered into still being allowed to make tobacco purchases? The FDA confirmed on Saturday that there is no grandfathering clause in the bill approved by Congress.
  • What will age 18-to-20 enforcement look like now? Will retailers have to ramp up monitoring the actions of an age-appropriate tobacco purchaser to make sure they don’t hand the products off to a now-underage 18- to 20-year-old in their parking lot?
  • Will the restrictions drive 18- to 20-year olds, particularly those addicted to nicotine products, to black market-type sources for traditional and electronic cigarettes, snus, moist snuff and other tobacco products?
  • How will retailers supplement the loss of sales from 18- to 20-year-olds?

For some tobacco and vape shops, that age group represented up to 25% of their revenue.

John Dee, with Stratus Smoke & Vape of Winston-Salem, said he supports raising the age to 21 mostly because it will limit attempts at illegal sales by those with fake IDs, or those who are 18 buying for their high school friends.

Dee stressed he was speaking of his opinion, and not necessarily that of store ownership.

“These days, you can’t necessarily tell someone who is 14 from someone who is 18,” Dee said. “You can better tell those from 18 to 21, but we card anyone who looks under 30 regardless.”

The new restrictions raise the carding age from 26 to 30.

Now illegal

Some local tobacco and vape shops responded by saying they don’t plan to enforce the age-21 restrictions until they have FDA signage in hand.

The Sheetz convenience store chain placed a flier on its windows Saturday to alert customers to the new law and that it would not be implemented at their stores until Jan. 6.

That’s even though the FDA’s note Friday said “it is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product — including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes — to anyone under 21.”

The agency added it “will provide additional details on this issue as they become available.”

Some anti-tobacco advocates say the lack of a grandfathering was necessary because of the significant rise in e-cigarette use in recent years.

The federal government’s annual National Youth Tobacco survey, released Dec. 5, determined that just 5.8% of ninth through 12th-graders consumed a traditional cigarette at least once over a 30-day period. That’s down from 7.6% in 2018, 15.8% as recently as 2011 and 28.5% when the survey debuted in 1999.

Meanwhile, e-cigarette usage jumped to 27.5% at least once over the same time period. That’s up from 20.8% in 2018 and just 4.5% in 2013.

The National Association of Convenience Stores issued a statement Thursday: “The law contemplates a regulation to provide retailers with clear direction on the new rules, including a requirement to verify the age of any purchaser under the age of 30.

“However, the law does not require a delay of the shift to 21.

“While there are unanswered questions about when FDA plans to enforce this requirement and whether the agency can legally enforce it before updating its regulations, retailers should be aware that FDA views any sale to a person under 21 as a violation of the new law.”

Unanswered questions

Lyle Beckwith, the association’s senior vice president of government relations, said Saturday the group “has been neutral on age-21 restrictions since we encourage the sale of legal products responsibly.”

However, the sudden implementation of the restrictions has left the association short-handed in terms of “we card” age-21 calendars and other verification materials to provide to its members. The association has had those materials on hand as some states raised their minimum ages to 21.

“We have about 3,000 pieces in inventory and about 300,000 members nationally,” Beckwith said. “We can’t get new age-21 verification calendars into place until April.

“We had expected a reasonable adjustment period from the FDA for our training initiatives. The federal law now takes away some states’ age-21 exemption for military personnel.”

Beckwith said the lack of grandfathering those ages 18 to 20 is particularly striking “since there should be a public awareness campaign to let those individuals know why they are now considered as underage for a product they could legally buy last week.”

The association has joined with five other trade groups to ask the FDA to wait to enforce the new tobacco-21 minimum purchase age law until the agency has issued the required implementing regulations. The other groups are: Food Marketing Institute, National Grocers Association, National Association of Truckstop Operators, Petroleum Marketers Association of America and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.

The groups said a letter sent to the FDA explains from their perspective how complicated the transition will be for retailers who must retrain employees, update signage, reprogram point-of-sale systems and inform customers, many of whom could legally purchase tobacco products before the law change.

The FDA has indicated to the groups that it will issue a statement soon on the transition.

‘Not worth the fine’

Angie Howard, with Robinhood Tobacco & Vape, didn’t wait for any FDA signage to arrive.

The store created their own signs stating the new age-21 federal restrictions even though North Carolina’s tobacco law still states age-18 restrictions.

“It’s not worth the fine to sell any more products to those under 21,” Howard said.

Howard said the Robinhood store’s sales are about 95% traditional tobacco products, such as imported cigars, “but we get the occasional teenager coming in asking for Juul.”

Howard said she believes the federal age-21 restrictions may be enough to put other potential tobacco restrictions on the back burner in Congress, such as banning all e-cigarette flavorings except tobacco, menthol and mint.

The Trump administration signaled support for those steps in September, only to appear to back away in the past month.

“When the FDA began talking about banning those additional flavors, some responded by buying up those products,” Howard said.

Howard blamed the FDA from making little progress on e-cigarette and other new tobacco product and flavoring regulations from the time Congress granted it that authority in 2009.

“The FDA should have stepped in so many years ago to get a grip on these products and how they should be sold and how safe they actually are before implementing age-21 restrictions,” Howard said.

“They allowed youths who became of high-school age during the past 10 years to have access to those vaping products to the point some became addicted and will now may go to the black market for their supplies.

“We know we can protect tobacco consumers much better by limiting what they can buy in our stores,” Howard said.

Lost sales

Matthew Williams, with Stadium Tobacco & Vape in Clemmons, said his store will lose sales on more than just tobacco products with the age-21 restrictions.

“Drink, chips and other non-tobacco sales will go down because those 18- to 20-year-olds who have been steady customers are no longer allowed in the store to buy those products as well,” Williams said.

“We will have some upset customers when they are told they can’t buy their tobacco and vaping products until they turn 21.”

Williams said he is concerned the now-underage smokers and vapers will turn to black-market options “since the FDA has cut them off.”

“If the concern about the vaping illnesses is the THC in the illegal black-market cartridges, I think the FDA has just opened it up for more of those cases from addicted 18- to 20-year-olds,” Williams said.

Retailers react

Dee, with Stratus Smoke & Vape, said the sales mix at his store is 60% e-cigarettes and 40% traditional products, with 20% of the clientele ages 18 to 20.

“We have been keeping a close ear to the state and federal political issues surrounding tobacco, particularly when it comes to flavorings,” Dee said.

“A flavorings ban to all but tobacco and menthol would be hard to manage given other outlets for those products. Just because someone turns 18, or 21 now, doesn’t mean they stop liking candy and fruit flavors.”

Dee said that he and members of his immediate family have used e-cigarettes to wean themselves off traditional cigarettes with positive physical developments.

“I believe vaping can help with health improvements, but what we need more as an industry, and in society, is being focused more on keeping these products out of the hands of those until they are of legal age to buy,” Dee said.

Aaron Wright, with Smoke House Tobacco & Vapes, said he expects the age-21 restrictions to have a negative impact in the short term.

Wright said those age 18 to 20 customers represent about 25% of its business, consuming both traditional and e-cigarettes.

“Hopefully, it will not be a drastic difference in our customer base as we look to limit the effect,” Wright said.

The store plans to add to its merchandise mix with products such as snacks, incense, smart phone gadgets, kratom (a controversial organic pain-relief product) and sex pills.

“We hope the age restrictions will get tobacco products out of the high schools, but it’s not likely to get them out of the colleges,” Wright said.

“We’re just hoping that there won’t be a blame-the-messenger mentality from customers who get upset that they can’t continue to buy their tobacco products here until they turn 21.”

Will it backfire?

Some industry analysts and anti-smoking advocates say that the rushed nature of the FDA enforcing age-21 restrictions may backfire, at least initially.

“Seeking to ban previously legal sales to those ages 18 to 20 without giving viable options to those who are dependent on nicotine is less likely to lead to abstinence than to disrespect for the law,” said David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa and the author of several e-cigarette and health studies.

“At a time where government bodies are ever less credible, the FDA should have long ago started to pay attention to those saying ‘nothing about us without us.’

“Banning the sale of products that are being used by a vast number of people without giving viable alternatives will only add to those credibility problems,” Sweanor said.

There has been concern from anti-tobacco groups that the age-21 initiative may be Congress’ signal that not enough support exists to ban most electronic cigarette flavors.

“The primary tobacco provision that has been included in this legislation, raising the age of sale for tobacco products to 21, will not solve the current epidemic of youth e-cigarette use,” said Matthew Myers, president for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“It will allow the tobacco companies to claim the youth e-cigarette problem has been solved even as it continues to grow worse every day.”

The Big 3 U.S. tobacco manufacturers — ITG Brands LLC, Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. — signaled support for federal age-21 laws in November 2018.

Scott Ballin, past chairman of the anti-smoking alliance Coalition of Science or Health, said the FDA appears to have learned a lesson about implementing regulations.

“If you put things off, you are likely to get in trouble down the road,” Ballin said.

“Tobacco 21 is here to stay, and it is to the agency’s advantage to demonstrate that it is already on that road to implementation.”