Protect Kids by Preventing Use

Decrease youth use by increasing the age of legal tobacco sales


While cracking down on underage sales of tobacco helps keep tobacco out of kids’ hands, more can be done to stop teens and young adults from ever starting smoking. The next step? Raise the age of tobacco sales from 18 to 21— what’s known as Tobacco 21 or just T21.


How does this help?

Research shows that nearly 90 percent of all smokers begin by age 18, and 99 percent start smoking by age 26.1 Young adulthood (ages 18-24) is a period when smoking patterns are often not yet established. Most regular (dependent) smokers try their first cigarette before age 18, but one-third2 to one-half3 started smoking regularly only during their young adult years. This age represents an important time of life, because it is often the period in which a person becomes addicted to smoking.

By keeping tobacco from 18-20 year olds, raising the age of tobacco sales both slows the progression adolescents follow toward addiction and also makes it harder for those under age 18 to access the products through their friends. While illegal sales to minors play a role in youth tobacco initiation, teen smoking is also powered by legal sales to young adults who then provide tobacco to minors they know.4 Thus, raising access to age 21 puts legal purchasers outside the social circle of most high school students.4


The impact could be striking

Not only have communities with local implementation of Tobacco 21 policies found decreased teen use of tobacco products, but national agencies are endorsing the policy as well.4

In 2015, the U.S. Institute of Medicine released a highly influential report detailing the potential public health benefits of a nationwide Tobacco 21 policy. It predicted a 25 percent drop in youths starting to smoke, a 12 percent drop in overall smoking rates, and 16,000 cases of preterm birth and low birth weight averted in just the first five years of the policy.4 This would happen, in part, because mothers who are under 21 are more likely to smoke while pregnant than their older counterparts.

Additionally, the Institute of Medicine offers a conservative estimate that a tobacco sale age of 21 adopted throughout the United States would prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking among youth alive today.4


The big loser? Tobacco companies 

Not everyone supports Tobacco 21 policies. Tobacco companies are worried about losing sales. A 1986 Philip Morris (maker of Marlboro cigarettes) report stated: “Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchase to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20) where we sell about 25 billion cigarettes and enjoy a 70 percent market share.”4


What now?

A great first step is to pass a retailer licensing policy which creates a framework for limiting underage sales and providing effective enforcement. If you’ve already passed a retailer licensing policy, T21 is a logical next step.

More information about Tobacco 21 policies can be found at


1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012.
2. Biener L, Albers AB. Young adults: vulnerable new targets of tobacco marketing. Am J Public Health 2004;94.
3. Trinidad DR, Gilpin EA, Pierce JP. Do the Majority of Asian-American and African-American Smokers Start as Adults? Am J Prev Med 2004;26(2):156-8.
4. Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.