‘Tobacco to 21’ Bills Introduced in U.S. Congress

Measures come after 11 states attempted to raise the legal purchase age

Thomas A. Briant, NATO Executive Director

Under 21

MINNEAPOLIS -- This past week, bills titled the “Tobacco to 21 Act” were introduced in the U.S. Senate and the U.S House to prohibit the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. The bill numbers are Senate Bill 2100 and House Bill 3656.

The Senate bill was introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and has nine other co-sponsors including:

  • Senator Mazie Horono (D-Hawaii)
  • Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois)
  • Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
  • Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts)
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California)
  • Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island)
  • Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island)
  • Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). 

The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. No Republican senators co-sponsored Senate Bill 2100.

The House bill was introduced by Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and has one other co-sponsor, Representative Mark Takai (D-Hawaii). The House version of the bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and, like the Senate version, no Republicans signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor.

This year, 11 state legislatures also engaged in the debate over raising the legal age to purchase and use tobacco products. Moreover, an increasing number of cities and towns have also considered, and some have enacted, higher minimum purchase ages. Hawaii has become the first state to adopt 21 as the new legal age to buy and use tobacco with the law going into effect on January 1, 2016.  11 other states considered bills to raise the legal age to either 19 or 21, but none of these other bills was passed.  These 11 other states with legal age bills included: California (age 21), Iowa (age 21), Massachusetts (age 21), New Jersey (age 21), New York (age 21), Oregon (age 21), Rhode Island (age 21), Texas (age 19), Utah (age 21), Vermont (age 21), and Washington (age 19).

If the bills in Congress were to pass and be signed into law, then the national age to purchase and use tobacco products would be 21. However, there will be two very distinct sides to this debate over raising the legal age with the advocates claiming fewer underage youth will begin to use tobacco products coupled with a reduction in tobacco-related health consequences versus the opponents arguing that personal rights and adult choice need to be given serious weight before raising the legal age.

Personal rights are important because people who reach adulthood are expected to take on certain responsibilities and it is the magnitude of these obligations that should also allow a person of adult age to choose what legal products they desire to purchase. Some of these serious responsibilities and duties borne by adults who are 18, 19 and 20 years old include voting, military service, marriage, divorce, payment of income taxes, health insurance mandates, health directive decisions, candidacy for public office, and prosecution as an adult for crimes committed. 

If the proponents of legislation to raise the legal age to buy and use tobacco products believe that raising the legal age will reduce underage use of tobacco products, then a very serious question needs to be discussed in this debate. That question is this: Why do 35% of high school students surveyed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) drink alcohol on a regular basis even though the legal age is 21 when the CDC also reports that only 9.2% of high school students smoke cigarettes on a regular basis?

A second question is even more important. If raising the legal age results in more underage youth wanting a product that they are prohibited from having, then what will happen to the declining rate of smoking among high school students if the legal age to buy and use tobacco is raised to 21? Before any level of government seeks to enact a higher minimum age, these questions need to be thoroughly debated because the result could very well be counter to what might be expected.