Raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21?  An impossible dream or a realistic public health policy? So far, 100+ cities, plus the  state of Hawaii, have embraced Tobacco 21, an important step in protecting our children. Many more communities across the U.S. are suddenly pondering the idea. Why is this idea gaining traction?

For years, adolescent smoking rates have been dropping.  Now, however, adolescents’ use of e-cigarettes, hookahs, small cigars, and especially nicotine vapor devices, has risen dramatically, threatening to erase the last decade’s progress.SMOKING SK 20151119 0049F

Why the increase? From ages 18-21, youthful experimentation with tobacco often accelerates into daily use. It’s a time when the adolescent brain is highly vulnerable to the effects of a powerful addictive agent like nicotine. Exposure during this period can result in permanent neurological changes that lead to a lifetime nicotine habit.

Raising the legal tobacco age also protects younger teens, as 90 percent of those who provide cigarettes to kids under 18 are themselves under 21.  In some communities where the legal age has been raised to 21, high school smoking rates have been reduced by more than 50 percent.

Hawaii became the first state to make this change in January 2016, after following the success of the first local law in Needham, Massachusetts. Since Needham’s ordinance was adopted in 2005, youth smoking there has fallen by more than half. In 2013, New York City became the first big city to follow suit.

Why is a higher age limit a good strategy? Because the best way to reduce tobacco addiction is to prevent it. It’s proven that young people are especially prone to falling into the smoking habit and the majority of smokers begin before the age of 21. A Philip Morris memo from the 1980’s warned, “Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchaser to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20).”

If the federal government were to raise the smoking age to 21, it could cut future smoking among teenagers by 12 percent, according to the National Academy of Sciences.  This would prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.  We don’t have to wait for the federal government. We can act now, in our state, our counties and local communities.  Each Tobacco 21 policy will protect young people from nicotine addiction and ultimately save lives.

Some critics make a familiar argument: If 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military, why can’t they light up?  This age group also can’t drink alcohol, however, and the case for limiting access to tobacco is even stronger since we know that tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of premature death in the U.S. There is no safe level of tobacco use. Plus, we all pay a heavy cost for smoking, many billions of dollars a year in both medical bills and lost productivity.

We know the problem. The majority of underage teen smokers and users of tobacco products get them from other young people aged 18-20.  

We know the solution. Raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21, thus cutting off a large amount of youth access to tobacco.

We know it works.  Ten years of evidence shows that Tobacco 21 laws can significantly reduce youth smoking rates.

We also have the evidence that shows how effective raising the alcohol age from 18 to 21 has been over the last 35 years.  

Add to all this the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) poll which indicates that 75 percent of adults and 65 percent of 18-24 year-olds support raising the tobacco purchase age to 21. 

What we do with this information is important.  Stay tuned as we present opportunities over the next several months to get involved in the Tobacco 21 movement in Western New York.


By Ken Dahlgren, Community Engagement Coordinator, Tobacco-Free Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany (TF-CCA)