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Raising the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products

Several states and municipalities across the United States are advocating for and implementing regulations that raise the minimum age of legal (MLA) access to tobacco products to 21 years of age. In June 2015, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to raise the MLA to 21 and, in March 2016, California became the second.

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate certain aspects of the tobacco industry. The act also mandated that the FDA convene an expert panel to review the public health implications of raising the MLA. In 2015, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report, Public Health Implications of Raising the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products, which reviews the literature on tobacco use initiation and models the public health outcomes of raising the MLA to 21 and 25 years of age. The IOM report found that raising the MLA was likely to reduce tobacco initiation among youths, improve health across the lifespan, and save lives.

In particular, the IOM report highlighted that underage tobacco users typically rely on “social sources,” such as friends, to obtain tobacco. While raising the MLA to 19 may not reduce social sources of tobacco for high school-aged teenagers, raising it to 21 could mean that legal tobacco users will be less likely to share social networks with teenagers. The report also noted that raising the age from 21 to 25 is not likely to significantly decrease the amount of social sources of tobacco for young teenagers. In addition, the report found that increasing the MLA to 21 or 25 could significantly decrease the prevalence of tobacco users by the time current teenagers reach adulthood. These findings and other recent data indicate that an MLA of 21 significantly reduces smoking rates among high schoolers have contributed to the evidence base for raising the MLA.

Examples of Rural Communities that Raised the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products

  • City of Iola, Kansas: Although the state of Kansas restricts tobacco sales to adults who are 18 years of age or older, state law does not prohibit local governments from enacting regulations that further limit youth access to tobacco. Since 2015, several municipalities in Kansas have passed ordinances to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, including the city of Iola in rural Allen County. The ordinance received support from several local organizations and businesses, such as Thrive Allen County.
  • Chautauqua County, New York: In April 2016, the Chautauqua County Legislature increased the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21. The ordinance received support from Tobacco-Free Western New York and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Considerations for Implementation

The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC) has developed a technical assistance guide that describes policy considerations for raising the minimum legal sales age for tobacco. For example, several states have preemption laws that prohibit local governments from raising the MLA in their municipalities.

TCLC also offers a sample ordinance for creating and a sample resolution supporting a minimum legal sales age of 21 for tobacco products. The Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation has a toolkit that offers talking points for communities that seeking to raise the MLA to 21.

Resources to Learn More

Public Health Implications of Raising the Minimum Age for Purchasing Tobacco Products
This Institute of Medicine Report describes the potential public health outcomes of raising the minimum legal age of access to tobacco products.
Organization(s): Institute of Medicine (Currently the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)
Date: 3/2015