Why the Age to Purchase Tobacco Changed to 21

Kun Liu, Staff Writer

In December 2019, Congress opted to raise the minimum sales age for all tobacco products to 21. The bill’s quick ratification by both chambers of Congress led to President Trump signing the bill into law on Dec. 20, upon which it went into immediate effect.

It all started to draw the attention of youngsters’ parents when  a symbolic report from the National Academy of Medicinerevealed that “Tobacco 21” could prevent about 223,000 deaths among people born between 2000 and 2019, and reduce lung cancer deaths by 50,000 people. 

Momentum increased as cities and states across the nation began to evaluate the report and take serious action  regarding the youth, increasing their legal sales age for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. As a result, Washington, D.C. and 19 states have passed Tobacco 21 laws, which has subsequently led to the growth of the law on a federal level.

An important component of a comprehensive public health approach, Tobacco 21 will reduce tobacco use at a preventable stage of one’s life. While Tobacco 21 is a remarkable policy —the youth vaping epidemic is at an all-time high — there is much more work to be done to save lives. 

According to the American Lung Association, here are a few reasons why raising the sales age to 21 will make a difference:

  • Virtually all (94%) of adult smokers had their first cigarette before turning 21, and most (81%) before age 18.
  • Smokers aged 18 and 19 years old are often a supplier for younger kids who rely on friends, classmates and peers to buy tobacco products. Since students do not typically reach 21 years old while still in high school, increasing the age of sale would greatly reduce the number of high school students who could purchase tobacco products.
  • Increasing the sales age for tobacco products to 21 would  help counter the tobacco industry’s efforts to target young people at a critical time when many move from experimenting with tobacco to regular smoking.
  • A national sales age of 21 for alcohol sales resulted in reduced alcohol consumption among youth, decreased alcohol dependence and has led to a dramatic reduction in drunk driving fatalities. It is predicted that raising the national sales age for tobacco products would  have similar effects.

The potential impact is significant. According to a 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine, if the minimum age was  increased to 21 years of age:

  • Tobacco use would decrease by 12% by the time today’s teenagers reached adulthood and smoking-related deaths would  decrease by 10%.
  • Smoking initiation will be reduced by 25% for 15-17 year-olds and 15%for 18-20 year olds.
  • Nationwide, it could prevent 223,000 deaths among people born between 2000 and 2019, including 50,000 fewer dying from lung cancer, the nation’s leading cancer killer.