Legal Age Becoming An Issue

Thomas A. Briant, NATO Executive Director

First, it was cigarette vending machines. Then, it was self-service displays in retail stores. Smoking bans followed with a subsequent effort to raise cigarette and tobacco excise taxes. More recently, bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products and other marketing restrictions such as prohibitions on the redemption of tobacco product coupons and outlawing buy-one, get-one-free-type tobacco promotions have been proposed by local governments.

One other new focus both on the local and the state level is a proposal to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21. In Massachusetts, where the state law sets the legal age to purchase and consume tobacco products at 18, five local boards of health have considered raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products. Of these five cities, two have adopted age 19 as the legal age, one has adopted a phase in to raise the legal age first to 19, then 20, and finally age 21. A fourth local health board has adopted age 21 as the legal age and a fifth board of health is still considering the issue.

Last week, the New York City Council’s Committee on Health held a public hearing on several proposed tobacco ordinances, including an ordinance that would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21. Local retail groups testified in opposition to the proposed age increase on the grounds that raising the age will not prevent underage youth from obtaining tobacco products because older adults (friends, family members) who legally buy tobacco products now and give them to underage youth will continue to do so and the rampant cigarette black market in New York City is a source for anyone of any age to obtain cigarettes. Moreover, the New York City proposed ordinance would not make it illegal for underage persons to possess and consume tobacco products, but only outlaw the sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 21.

As a follow up to the New York City proposal to raise the legal age, Senate Bill No 4863 and House Bill No. 7105 were introduced in the New York State legislature to raise the legal purchase age for tobacco products from 18 to 21.