Will Tobacco 21 Laws Kick Cigarettes' Butts for Good?

If Tobacco 21 has its way, signs like this in most states will change from 18 to 21. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The 18th birthday rite of passage of buying porn and cigs might not be long for this world, if some lawmakers and medical professionals have their druthers. Tobacco 21 laws, which raise the legal purchase age to 21, are on fire.

Despite changes that limit public exposure to cigarettes and other tobacco products, the purchase age in most places is still 18. Even so, it's obvious teens aren't waiting for that age to take a puff — nearly nine out of ten smokers started before turning 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The idea of Tobacco 21 laws is to cut off cigarette access to younger teens by preventing their 18- to 20-year-old buddies from buying smokes for them. "The earlier the habit is acquired, the more difficult it is to quit later," explains John Billimek, Ph.D., assistant professor and research fellow at the University of California, Irvine Health Policy Research Institute in an email interview. He notes that high school-aged kids have regular contact with 18-year-olds, but far fewer mix socially with 21-year olds. "Making it a little harder for young adults to pick up the habit could drastically improve their health outcomes later in life." 

Other efforts (increased taxes, strict age enforcement or fines for retailers) have been effective. In 2013, 15.7 percent of students reported lighting up on one or more cigarettes in the 30 days before being polled, compared with 36.4 percent in 1997. Opponents to teen smoking argue that, in addition to being highly addictive, nicotine exposure is especially risky for adolescents whose brains are still developing. In fact, teen smoking has been linked to increased psychiatric disorders, attention deficit issues and cognitive impairment later in life. Coupled with the fact that tobacco use is well-known to be the largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States today (credited with 480,000 fatalities per year), it's no surprise that activists are on the legislative warpath.

The city of Needham, Massachusetts, was on the front end of the movement, changing the purchase age to 21 in 2005. Researchers found that Needham experienced a larger decline in teen smoking from 2006 to 2010 (13 to 7 percent), compared with nearby communities (15 to 12 percent).

"A statewide law has been in effect in Hawaii since January of this year, which was the first state to adopt Tobacco 21," explains Tom Geist, regional director of Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, via email. "A bill that has passed both the Assembly and Senate in California sits on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk awaiting a signature, so in the next couple of weeks we expect to have our second Tobacco 21 state," he says. Bills are also progressing in Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey, with city ordinances passed in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, Cleveland, Boston and approximately 140 other cities and counties nationwide, he adds. "The vast majority of this momentum has been in only the last 2 years, so we are moving at a blistering rate," Geist says.

New Jersey's progress was temporarily slowed when Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a Tobacco 21 bill that landed on his desk in early 2016 (thanks to lobbying from the tobacco industry and retailer associations). A new bill has since been introduced.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that three quarters of adults support raising the age to 21, including seven out of 10 current adult smokers. Ryan (last name withheld), a former smoker from Alpharetta, Georgia, would count herself among the supporters. "I think cigarettes should be illegal for anyone to buy," she says.

However, Michelle (last name withheld), who successfully kicked the habit 21 years after starting at age 14, doesn't think a higher age limit would have made any difference to her back then. "I started smoking by sneaking cigarettes out of my parents' cigarette packages," she says. "The smoking section [at my high school] is how I made new friends in a strange place at an awkward age. I guess I started smoking because everyone around me smoked. I think reducing the number of adults who smoke has a greater influence on kids picking up the habit than the age of legal purchase."

She adds that if kids are considered adults at 18, they should be allowed to smoke (or drink) just like any other adult. "I don't think we can call you an adult in every way except for deciding to take up nasty habits."