U.S. State and Local Issues

Increasing the Sale Age for Tobacco Products to 21


“Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchaser to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20) …”
 – Philip Morris report, January 21, 1986

Raising the minimum legal sale age for tobacco products to 21 is a promising strategy to reduce smoking and other tobacco use among youth and save lives. A 21 sale age complements other strategies to reduce tobacco use, including higher tobacco taxes, strong smoke-free laws that include all workplaces and public places, and well-funded, sustained tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Nearly all smokers start as kids or young adults, and these age groups are heavily targeted by the tobacco industry.  Increasing the sale age to 21 will help to prevent young people from ever starting to smoke and to reduce the deaths, disease and health care costs caused by tobacco use.

A March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine (now called the National Academy of Medicine) strongly concluded that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 will have a substantial positive impact on public health and save lives. 

The study found that raising the tobacco sale age will significantly reduce the number of adolescents and young adults who start smoking; reduce smoking-caused deaths; and immediately improve the health of adolescents, young adults and young mothers who would be deterred from smoking, as well as their children.

On May 4, 2016, California became the second state to raise the tobacco sale age to 21, joining Hawaii. At least 240 localities have raised the tobacco age to 21, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and both Kansas Cities. Statewide legislation to do so is being considered in several other states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington state.


Most Adult Smokers Start Smoking Before Age 21

National data show that about 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. The ages of 18 to 21 are also a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to regular, daily use. While less than half of adult smokers (46 percent) become daily smokers before age 18, four out of five do so before they turn 21.

Nicotine is addictive, and adolescents and young adults are more susceptible to its effects because their brains are still developing. Delaying the age when young people first experiment with or begin using tobacco can reduce the risk that they will become addicted smokers.


Tobacco Companies Target Kids and Young Adults

Tobacco companies intentionally market to kids and young adults in order to recruit “replacement smokers” and protect company profits. They know nearly all users become addicted before age 21. Increasing the tobacco sale age to 21 will help counter the efforts of the tobacco companies to target young people at a critical time when many move from experimenting with tobacco to regular smoking.


Raising the Sale Age Will Help Keep Tobacco Out of High Schools

Research shows that kids often turn to older friends and classmates as sources of cigarettes.  Raising the tobacco sale age to 21 would reduce the likelihood that a high school student will be able to legally purchase tobacco products for other students and underage friends.

About 580 kids under the age of 18 become regular smokers each day – one in three will eventually die as result.  We should do everything we can to prevent young people from smoking and save lives.  Increasing the minimum legal age of sale for tobacco products to 21 will help achieve these goals.