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Ages & Stages

Raising the Legal Age to Buy Tobacco

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Many high school students would turn 18—the previous legal age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes in most states—during their senior year of high school. Often, they would purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products for younger students.

Fixing the problem

In December 2019, a federal Tobacco 21 law was passed that raised the national purchase age for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years old. This law put the onus on the retailer by making it illegal to sell any tobacco product to a minor under the age of 21. This law is generally enforced through fines and protects younger adolescents from accessing tobacco products through friends who are legally able to buy them.

Fast facts

  • According to 2021 data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, over 13% of high school students (2.06 million) currently use a tobacco product. Current tobacco product use was highest for e-cigarettes (11.3%), followed by cigars (2.1%) cigarettes (1.9%), smokeless tobacco (1.2%), hookah (1.2%), heated tobacco products (0.8%), and pipe tobacco (0.4%).

  • Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., including nearly 42,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about 1 in 5 deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day.

  • A 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study showed that 75% of the American public, including 70% of current smokers, supported a minimum tobacco purchase age of 21.

How Tobacco 21 laws help

  • Youth brains are susceptible to the addictive properties of nicotine, because their brains are still developing.

  • The majority of smokers (90%) start by age 18. These young smokers often get their cigarettes from their older friends.

  • Raising the tobacco purchase age would ensure that older high school students and young college students cannot buy tobacco products for younger friends. This can prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents.

  • A purchase age of 21 is consistent with the laws for alcohol. Raising the legal drinking age to 21 has helped reduce drunk driving fatalities and reduce alcohol dependence among youth.

Components of the federal Tobacco 21 law

  • Includes all types of tobacco products: cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, electronic nicotine delivery systems (including e-cigarettes), and hookah.

  • Includes information about who will manage compliance.

  • Does not penalize underage tobacco users for possession of tobacco products. Instead, the onus is placed on retailers and generally enforced through fines.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2021)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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