Tobacco Industry View: The Battle Over Legal Age

Thomas A. Briant, NATO Executive Director

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Eighteen, 19, 21 and even 25: These numbers represent the current and/or potential minimum legal ages to purchase tobacco products, and the battle lines are being drawn over whether young adults should be able to buy legal tobacco products.

State and Local Legal Ages

Up until recently, the legal age to buy tobacco products has been 18 years old in 46 states and 19 years old in Alaska, Alabama, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and Utah. However, on the local front, four Massachusetts towns have set the legal purchase age at 19, and eight other Massachusetts cities now mandate that adults be 21 years old to purchase tobacco products. Also, due to the passage of an ordinance by the New York City Council, retailers in the city are prohibited from selling cigarettes, tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21 as of May 18, 2014.

However, the legal age issue is not confined to local and state governments. The federal law enacted in 2009 that granted the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products required the agency to “convene an expert panel to conduct a study on the public health implications of raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products.” According to a recent report by The National Academies, the Institute of Medicine is now conducting a study to present to the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products in 2015 on the public health impact of increasing the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 years old and even to 25 years old.

Age Increase Unnecessary

The old adage that minors routinely purchase cigarettes and tobacco products from retailers is no longer valid. FDA retail compliance checks regularly demonstrate that retailers comply with the law and decline sales to underage youth minors an average of 95% of the time. If the goal of raising the legal age to purchase tobacco is to reduce youth access to tobacco, then prohibiting retailers from selling tobacco products to 18-, 19- and even 20-year-old adults will not solve the issue of underage youth tobacco use because retailers are doing their part to prevent minors from obtaining tobacco.

Tapping Social Sources

Those anti-tobacco advocates, elected officials and even the FDA whose goal is to further reduce the rate of tobacco use by underage youth should consider collectively focusing their resources and political will on the “social sources” that minors rely on to obtain tobacco products. In the Centers for Disease Control’s 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey, evidence of these social sources is prevalent, with the youth surveyed reporting that they had someone else buy cigarettes for them, they asked others for a cigarette, someone offered them a cigarette, and/or they bought cigarettes from another person.

Other studies demonstrate that “enabling adults” composed of adult-age siblings, relatives and even parents are a primary source of tobacco products for underage youth. Increasing the legal age will not solve the problem of “enabling adults” legally buying and then providing tobacco products to minors. Moreover, local laws setting higher minimum-purchase ages will be circumvented by mobile young adults who will purchase tobacco products in neighboring towns that allow tobacco sales to individuals who are 18 years old or older.

Media Campaign Needed

In the first week of February, the FDA announced a new nationwide multimedia campaign focused on preventing underage use of tobacco products. The campaign, which cost more than $390 million, will include TV commercials and social media messages. In response, NATO has sent a letter to the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products recommending that the agency create a similar media campaign aimed at reducing the availability of tobacco products to underage youth from social sources. Educating other teens, family members and strangers about the importance of not being a source of tobacco products for minors would help further decrease the rate of underage tobacco use.

Raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products is a solution that will not solve the problem of underage use of tobacco products. The solution in large part relies on curbing the access of tobacco by minors from social sources and enabling adults.

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