“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
Another strategy for reducing smoking and other tobacco use among young people is to increase the minimum legal sale age for tobacco products to 21.
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.
Increasing the sale age will complement other strategies to reduce tobacco use, including higher tobacco taxes, strong smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces and public places, and well-funded, sustained tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
New laws to increase the tobacco sale age to 21 were recently approved in New York City and Hawai'i County. Statewide legislation is currently being considered in Colorado, Hawai’i, Utah and other states. These measures are grounded in sound science:
“If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will. By age 21, the odds are twenty-to-one.”
— RJ Reynolds, September 10, 1982
National data show that 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 nearly half of adult smokers become daily smokers before age 18, more than 75 percent do so before they turn 21.
Nicotine is incredibly 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 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.
Research shows that kids often turn to older friends and classmates as sources of cigarettes. With more high school students turning 18 before graduation, younger kids have regular contact with older students who can legally purchase tobacco for them.
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 700 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.