Research & Commentary: Cities and States Consider Increasing Tobacco Age Limit to 21, Regulating ENDS Like Tobacco Products

Published December 6, 2017

Several states and many localities are considering legislation that would increase the age required to purchase and possess combustible tobacco cigarettes and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), such as e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. Proponents of these new requirements say they will help prevent young people from smoking tobacco, but there is little evidence to conclude that such regulations will deter youth consumption.

The illegality of other substances does not stop young people from using them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in its Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs 58 percent of 12th graders reported consuming alcohol in 2015. Additionally, alcohol has remained “the substance most widely used by today’s teenagers,” with 61 percent of respondents having “consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school.” The authors of the Monitoring the Future Study also found 35 percent of respondents reported having used marijuana in 2015; more than 21 percent said they used the drug within a month of taking the survey.

In every state, alcohol and marijuana are both illegal for persons 18 years and younger to use, including in states where marijuana is legal. But it appears merely passing laws has done almost nothing to curb consumption. Why would lawmakers expect different results when it comes to tobacco cigarettes?

The cost of altering the age at which it is legal to use tobacco and/or e-cigarettes is substantial for states. Policies increasing the smoking age not only cause a loss of tax revenue, they are also accompanied by enforcement costs, including additional police expenditures, judicial and legal services, and other law enforcement costs.

Further, prohibiting persons under 21 from purchasing tobacco and ENDS products often leads to the creation or expansion of a black-market economy. Black markets force lawmakers to implement additional measures to combat negative externalities. This is particularly problematic in areas that have high cigarette sales taxes, compared to neighboring communities, such as in Cook County, Illinois.

Cook County has a $3 tax on tobacco products, creating some of the highest cigarette prices in the country. It also has a Cigarette Tax Reward Program, which offers monetary awards of up to $250 to persons reporting those seeking to avoid paying cigarette taxes, including people who use unstamped or counterfeit packs or even stray cigarettes. And while it has been reported $4 million in tobacco citations are written up in Chicago each year, only 15–20 percent actually end up getting paid.

The benefits of Cook County’s various taxes, programs, and mandates do not even come close to outweighing the related costs of these measures. Black markets have forced law enforcement to spend countless taxpayer dollars every year battling, both directly and indirectly, a problem that would likely be much more manageable if taxes were much lower or didn’t exist at all.

Those who support these burdensome taxes say they are necessary to prevent children from getting their hands on cigarettes, but the available evidence indicates these taxes and mandates have failed in this regard. When proposing such policies, officials should consider that the average age adult smokers begin using cigarettes is already under 18 years old, which means passing a law to increase the age of smoking from 18 to 21 would do virtually nothing to reduce adult smoking rates. According to the Surgeon General, almost 90 percent of cigarette smokers began smoking before 18.

More importantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “from 2011 to 2016, current cigarette smoking declined among middle and high school students.” Thus, there is no reason why local and state governments should increase the smoking age, as youth rates are currently declining without these changes.

Further, including ENDS devices under the same legal categories as tobacco cigarettes is unnecessary, costly, and takes smoking-cessation tools out of the hands of people already addicted to tobacco.

Most data show youth cigarette smoking has fallen in large part because of  ENDS use. A 2015 study concluded state bans on youth access to ENDS increased cigarette smoking rates in users 12–17 years old. In 2015, the University of Michigan found the majority of teens that did vape did not use nicotine, falsifying claims that ENDS use leads to nicotine and cigarette addiction.

Rather than limit choices for young adults, state policymakers should promote tobacco harm reduction tools such as ENDS. Doing so would help resolve health care problems created by tobacco use, not worsen them.


The following documents provide more information about tobacco harm reduction.

Vaping, E-Cigarettes, and Public Policy Toward Alternatives to Smoking
For decades, lawmakers and regulators have used taxes, bans, and burdensome regulations as part of their attempt to reduce the negative health effects of smoking. Recently, some have sought to extend those policies to electronic cigarettes. This booklet from The Heartland Institute urges policymakers to re-think that tax-and-regulate strategy. Policymakers should be mindful of the extensive research that supports tobacco harm reduction and understand bans, excessive regulations, and high taxes on e-cigarettes often encourage smokers to continue using more-harmful traditional cigarette products.

How Do Electronic Cigarettes Affect Adolescent Smoking?
Understanding electronic cigarettes’ effect on tobacco smoking is a central economic and policy issue. This paper examines the causal impact of e-cigarette availability on conventional cigarette use by adolescents. First, synthetic control analyses consider how state bans on e-cigarette sales to minors influence teen smoking rates. These bans yield a statistically significant 1 percentage point increase in recent smoking rates in this age group, relative to states without such bans. The study also examines survey data on cigarette and e-cigarette use, separating teens by estimated propensity to smoke in the absence of e-cigarettes. Among those with the highest propensity to smoke, e-cigarette use increased the most, while cigarette use declined. A 1 percentage point rise in the percentage of people who use e-cigarettes at least once yields a 0.65 percentage point drop in this subgroup’s current smoking rate. These results indicate e-cigarettes have a harm-reducing effect on adolescent cigarette smoking, at least prior to 2014.

Study: Youth E-Cig Access Regulations Increase Smoking Rates
A Yale University researcher has found a link between bans on e-cigarette use by teens under age 18 and increases in underage cigarette smoking rates. The study, authored by Abigail Friedman, an associate professor of public health at Yale University, contradicts government-sponsored studies suggesting e-cigarettes are a “gateway drug” for tobacco cigarettes among teens.

Research & Commentary: Public Health Officials Urge Use of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud notes the importance of NHS Health Scotland’s joint statement encouraging the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) as an alternative to tobacco products. NHS Health Scotland, Public Health England, and other groups have found ENDS are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes.

Qualitative Study on E-cigarettes Shows More Evidence of Tobacco Harm Reduction
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manger Lindsey Stroud examines a study, published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in June 2016, that provides additional evidence showing e-cigarettes and vaporized nicotine products (VNPs) are an effective tobacco harm-reduction tool.

Nicotine without smoke: Tobacco harm reduction
This report aims to provide a fresh update on the use of harm reduction in tobacco smoking, in relation to all non-tobacco nicotine products but particularly e-cigarettes. It concludes that, for all the potential risks involved, harm reduction has huge potential to prevent death and disability from tobacco use, and to hasten our progress to a tobacco-free society. 

E-Cigarette Primer for State and Local Lawmakers
Joel Nitzkin provides evidence e-cigarettes work as a tobacco harm reduction modality and reviews the arguments against them. He closes with recommendations for actions state and local lawmakers should and should not consider regarding tobacco harm reduction and e-cigarettes. 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, Heartland’s Consumer Freedom Lounge, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state, or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact John Nothdurft, Heartland’s director of government relations, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.