Bills to Raise Tobacco Buying Age May Miss Mark, NATO Says

Federal, state and local efforts to increase age of purchase intensify
Photograph: Shutterstock

LAKEVILLE, Minn. — Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) were introducing legislation that would change the legal age of purchase for tobacco products from 18 to 21. McConnell, who is up for reelection next year, and Kaine both hail from states with significant tobacco-industry representation from farmers to manufacturers.

The bipartisan bill was introduced in response to the perceived increase in youth uptake of tobacco products, most specifically electronic cigarettes. The bill would make it illegal for retailers to sell any tobacco products to anyone under age 21 under federal law, while also pressuring states to do the same or risk losing federal substance-abuse grants starting in two years. In its current form, the legislation fails both to preempt state governments from taking additional action or to specifically penalize possession or use of tobacco products by minors or young adults under age 21.

According to advocates of raising the purchase age, more than 475 city and county governments in 29 states have already increased the age of purchase to 21. Fourteen states have also taken action to increase the age of purchase with other proposals still pending. Six state laws will take effect in July 2019 and two more will increase the age in the following two years. Large cigarette manufacturers and at least one leading electronic cigarette company have publicly announced that they will support efforts to increase the purchase age.

The bill is unlikely to create the desired outcome because national government surveys demonstrate that a significant majority (80%-90%) of minors who experiment with or use tobacco products acquire them not from traditional retailers but rather from social sources—friends, family members and even strangers. There is no credible basis to believe this will change. Likewise, youth smoking has declined over a long period and those declines have increased in recent years with the prevalence of electronic cigarettes in the market.

The bill also fails to accommodate young adults over age 18 who may currently be legal consumers of tobacco products by grandfathering them in under the law. As we have learned over the years, quitting smoking is not always easy. Making sales illegal doesn’t make it any easier.

Scientific research from organizations such as Public Health England, The Royal College of Physicians and others has demonstrated that non-combustible nicotine products are much safer—more than 95% safer—than smoking combustible cigarettes. Other research published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that electronic cigarettes are more than twice as effective as U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved smoking cessation protocols like nicotine gums and patches at helping smokers quit.

At the age of 18, American adults can vote, borrow money, marry or divorce, sue or be sued, make life or death decisions for loved ones or serve our country in the military. Perhaps these adults deserve the freedom to make health choices for themselves as well.

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