Tobacco 21 Is a Catch-22

Raising the legal age to buy tobacco products is problematic

MINNEAPOLIS -- A catch-22 is a problematic situation caused by mutually conflicting or seemingly contradictory conditions. Considering raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products is not only a catch-22 but also allows the “social sources” problem to perpetuate itself.

One of the main issues about raising the legal age to 21 centers on whether to also make it illegal for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to possess and use tobacco products in addition to prohibiting the sale to these young adults. Those anti-tobacco advocates who are proposing to raise the legal purchase age to 21 claim that there will be a health benefit because 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds would not use tobacco products nor serve as a social source (someone willing to be a supplier of tobacco products) for underage youth.

However, if 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults are not prohibited from possessing and using tobacco products, these adults will simply drive to a neighboring or nearby city or town, purchase their preferred tobacco products, and then legally possess and use them in their hometown. This also means that these adults can continue to be a social source of tobacco for minors. In other words, the public-health benefit claimed will be marginal to nonexistent, but local retailers would suffer the financial loss of tobacco sales to legal-age adults along with reduced gasoline, snack and beverage sales when these adults drive to nearby towns to patronize other retailers.

Also, if an age-21 law is proposed that would also ban the possession and use of tobacco products, then local police departments generally oppose an ordinance because the police would be tasked with enforcing the ordinance by citing and/or arresting 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults for possessing and/or using legal tobacco products.

This opposition to prohibiting the possession and use of tobacco, while at the same time raising the legal age to 21 to purchase tobacco, usually creates a conflicting standard. Most state laws make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy, possess or use alcohol. However, advocate groups apparently oppose uniformity with the state liquor laws; instead, they want to allow 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old adults to be able to possess and use tobacco.

Here is the catch-22: On the one hand, supporters of an age-21 ordinance claim a health benefit if the age to purchase tobacco is raised, but they fail to acknowledge that there will be little if any health benefit because 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds could still possess and use tobacco and that social sources will remain the leading access point for tobacco for underage youth.

On the other hand, when the possibility of also prohibiting possession and use of tobacco is raised to be in line with state liquor possession and use laws, advocates tend to withdraw their support because of the criminal penalties for possessing and using tobacco. These positions are contradictory and demonstrate the difficulty presented by considering a policy that changes the legal age of adulthood.

One Example

Consider reaction to the age-21 law approved in Edina, Minn., on May 2. It drew many opposing comments from residents. What follows are reader responses sent to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

  • “All Edina has done is make cigarettes more of a ‘forbidden fruit’ to their teenagers and won’t do much, if anything, to do with reducing smoking rates. It’s already proven that education, not prohibition, is the best way to reduce smoking (and drinking).”
  • “Since Edina doesn’t seem to believe 18-year-olds can make a good decision when it comes to tobacco use, I assume they’ll want to raise the age of legal majority to 21 along with the voting age and the age for military service?”
  • “When are the citizens going to say enough is enough? A City Council enacting a law prohibiting the sale of a legal product seems like overreach. Hopefully these 18-20 year olds will vote against these folks for infringing on their rights.”
  • “I would not have voted for the two new members of the City Council had I known they would bring to life and vote for this. It’s a waste of my city tax dollars and a loss of more tax dollars.”
  • “This is a no-brainer … just go elsewhere. How dumb are the council people of Edina?”
  • “What principle does this establish? That they don’t trust 18-year-olds to make decisions about their own personal consumption choices?”
  • “Do you trust them enough to allow them to march into battle overseas with a machine-gun in their hands?”
  • “I’m a non-smoker and well over 21 so I have no dog in [t]his fight. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to make cigarettes illegal to purchase for young adults. They’re legal adults. They can make their own decisions.”
  • “What an amazingly superficial and useless action. Military personnel aside, is there any true reason to be a legal adult when others are making your personal decisions for you?”
  • “Self-righteous do-nothingness. And no, I do not smoke--I just don’t believe in arbitrarily taking away the rights of legal adults.”
  • “Brilliant! Leave it up to Edina to lead the way to show the rest of us how another symbolic, do-nothing law will only hurt local businesses and effectively lower tax revenues for their city.”
  • “Nanny state.”
  • “I loathe smoking, but the only thing more insufferable than smokers is people on their high horse telling adults what they can’t do.”
  • “Each day we are getting closer to living in a totalitarian society. This is supposed to be a free country. We are losing more and more of our freedoms with each legislative session, with each City Council meeting and each new law that is put on the books. Tragic and sad.”

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a CSP member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


More from our partners