A Case for Raising the Legal Sale Age on Tobacco Products

There are many milestones for a parent. Having your child turn 18 may be among the top. It’s an emotional time for a parent.

I should know — my oldest daughter turned 18 this year and she is now a legal adult who can make her own decisions. She can vote. She can join the military. And yes, she can legally buy tobacco products.

That is a lesson I learned the hard way.

On her birthday, my daughter couldn’t wait to go to the nearest gas station after school and buy a pack of cigarettes. She was so excited when she was carded. After she presented her ID, the man behind the counter smirked, sold her the cigarettes and wished her a happy birthday.

Thankfully, she didn’t smoke the cigarettes. Instead she gave them to a homeless person who was extremely grateful for the gift.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of her for making the decision to not smoke. I know it isn’t an easy decision. In fact, each day nearly 1,000 kids under the age of 18 become regular, daily smokers. Sadly, almost one-third will die from it.

While a staggering 80 percent of adult smokers first tried smoking before age 18, most don’t become regular, daily smokers until between the ages of 18-21. It makes sense, really. Tobacco companies have long viewed young adults as a target market group.

As we visited colleges with my daughter, I was struck by the tobacco advertisements — at sporting events, at bars, at parties, even on campus. Tobacco companies heavily target young adults ages 18 to 21 through a variety of marketing activities. They know it is a critical window for solidifying tobacco addiction.

Just as research shows tobacco companies that this is a prime age range to introduce the use of tobacco products, other research shows us that delaying the age when young people first experiment with or begin using tobacco can reduce the risk that they will transition to regular tobacco use.

So as my daughter turned 18, it begged a question for me — why is 18 the legal age to use tobacco? You have to be 21 to drink alcohol. Why not 21 to smoke tobacco products? Increasing the minimum legal sale age (MLSA) for tobacco products from 18 to 21 has emerged as a policy strategy to reduce youth tobacco use.

Four states already have an MLSA of 19: Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah.

Counties in New York and Massachusetts also have an MLSA of 19, with Needham, Mass., being the first city to implement an MLSA of 21.

Because it is a relatively new strategy, research on increasing the MLSA to 21 is somewhat limited, but the available data provides a strong reason to believe that it will contribute to reductions in youth tobacco use.

Just as raising the legal drinking age to 21 has not eliminated underage drinking, a higher MLSA will not entirely eliminate underage tobacco use. But according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, it could help reduce youth tobacco use and increase the likelihood that youth will grow up to be tobacco-free:

  • Raising the MLSA to 21 would increase the age gap between younger adolescents and those who can legally provide them with tobacco products, thus helping keep tobacco out of high schools.
  • Delaying the age for legal tobacco use would reduce the risk that they will transition to regular users
  • Younger adolescents would have a harder time passing themselves off as 21, which could reduce underage sales.
  • A MLSA of 21 may simplify identification checks for retailers since many state driver’s licenses clearly indicate that the driver is under the age of 21.

We recently dropped my daughter off for her freshman year at college. I’m hopeful that she will continue to use sound judgment and remain smoke-free. I’m also hopeful that before my younger children turn 18 and end up at the tobacco counter to legally buy cigarettes, communities in Missouri and Kansas will consider how raising the MLSA might help us to achieve a tobacco-free future for our children.


Health Forward Foundation
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