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3 states pass tobacco 21 laws in 3 weeks

In the span of under 21 days this summer, three states raised the legal minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, displaying the momentum of a tobacco control strategy that has only recently seen widespread adoption.

Between July 21 and August 9, New Jersey, Maine and Oregon joined Hawaii and California in passing tobacco 21 laws. These laws have now passed in five states and more than 250 localities.


As many as 75 percent of Americans, including most smokers, support a minimum age of 21 for purchasing tobacco.

The number of states and localities passing these laws has risen sharply in just a few years. The first such law was adopted in Needham, Mass., in 2005. By 2013, only seven other localities had joined Needham. Three years later, more than 125 localities and Hawaii had followed suit, and that number has now more than doubled in just one year.

Only Congress can change the federal minimum age for purchasing tobacco—the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act prohibited the Food and Drug Administration from raising the minimum age above 18. However, states and some localities have the authority to set a higher minimum age of sale in their jurisdictions.

Here’s why it makes sense that more state and local governments are choosing to use their authority by passing tobacco 21 laws.

The laws reduce kids’ access to tobacco

The Joe Camel cartoon may be a thing of the past, but industry marketing that appeals to young people isn’t. Tobacco companies market to young people in a variety of ways, including selling “candy-flavored” tobacco productsmarketing near schools and investing heavily in retail marketing, which is linked to teenage experimentation with tobacco.

Tobacco 21 laws don’t make the marketing any less appealing, but they do make it much harder for young people to get their hands on tobacco products. The age limit reduces peer-to-peer access to products because teens under 18 are less likely to socialize with 21-year-olds than with 18-year-olds.

The research is compelling

An FDA-commissioned Institute of Medicine report, released in 2015, found striking potential for tobacco 21 laws to save young lives.

The report showed that raising the nationwide legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 would prevent 223,000 premature deaths, 50,000 deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million lost life-years for Americans born between 2010 and 2019.

Additionally, research in Needham, Mass., the first tobacco 21 community, showed that past 30-day cigarette smoking among youth was cut almost in half, and frequent smoking by youth dropped by 62 percent after the law took effect. These decreases were significantly larger than those experienced in Massachusetts communities that did not pass this ordinance.

Even smokers support tobacco 21 laws

Tobacco 21 laws have proven to be very popular. Two 2015 studies concluded that 70 to 75 percent of Americans, including most smokers, support a minimum age of 21 for purchasing tobacco.

The nation’s leading health organizations have also come out in support of the laws, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association. Truth Initiative® joins these groups in strongly supporting tobacco 21 laws.


Read more about the potential of tobacco 21 in our policy statement.