Research & Commentary: Tobacco 21 Laws Do Not Reduce Youth E-Cigarette Use

Published May 1, 2019

In response to a so-called nationwide youth e-cigarette use epidemic, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills that would increase their state’s tobacco and vaping product purchasing age from 18 years of age to 21. As of late April, 14 states and more than 400 localities have raised the tobacco product purchasing age to 21.

Lawmakers mistakenly believe the new age limit will reduce youth use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes. However, existing data from Tobacco 21 (T-21) laws in several states indicate these laws have little effect on curbing youth e-cigarette use.

Hawaii was the first state to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21, which went into effect January 1, 2016. In 2015, 22.2 and 5.0 percent of Hawaiian high school and middle school students, respectively, reported ever using an e-cigarette product, according to the 2015 Hawai’i Youth Tobacco Survey. Moreover, 12.9 percent of high school students and 7.6 percent of middle school students reported current e-cigarette use, or any use of an e-cigarette product within 30 days of the survey.

Despite T-21 taking effect in 2016, data from the 2017 Hawai’i Youth Tobacco Survey found e-cigarette use among high school and middle school students actually increased. In 2017, 39.4 percent of high school students reported use of e-cigarettes—a 43 percent rise. Additionally, Hawaiian high school students reporting current use of e-cigarettes (within the past 30 days) also increased to 20.9 percent—a 38 percent surge.

What’s more, Hawaiian middle school students’ use of e-cigarettes also increased. In 2017, 21.9 percent of middle school students reported e-cigarette use—an increase of 77 percent from 2015. Current e-cigarette use among middle school students grew to 11.5 percent.

Unfortunately, Hawaii isn’t the only state to pass T-21 and experience more youth e-cigarette use. Localities in Massachusetts began passing T-21 legislation in 2013. In 2018 the Bay State passed a statewide T-21 proposal. Although it is too early to examine the effects of the statewide T-21 legislation, county-level data indicate T-21has not decreased youth e-cigarette use.

Data from the 2016 Franklin County/North Quabbin Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found a significant amount of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes, despite numerous localities in Franklin County having passed T-21 legislation in 2015.

In the 2016 YRBS, 17 percent of 8th graders, 36 percent of 10th graders, and 51 percent of 12th graders reported ever using vapor products. Nine percent of 8th graders, 18 percent of 10th graders, and 28 percent of 12th graders reported current use of e-cigarettes.

In the 2019 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, data from the 2018 YRBS survey found use of e-cigarette products slightly decreased. However, current use increased among high school students with 28.9 percent of 10th graders and 28.9 percent of 12th graders reporting use of e-cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey. Even worse, current e-cigarette use among 10th graders increased by more than 37 percent from 2016 to2018.

The findings from misguided T-21 laws in Hawaii and Massachusetts reveals age restrictions do not deter youth e-cigarette use. Other states have proposed high taxes on vaping products to help reduce youth e-cigarette use. However, existing research finds youth e-cigarette use increases even after onerous taxes are applied to these devices.  

An analysis by The Heartland Institute examined the effects of Pennsylvania’s 2016 40 percent wholesale tax on vaping products. According to the 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), 15.5 percent of middle and high school students reported using an e-cigarette within the past 30 days. In 2017, PAYS found this increased to 16.3 percent of middle and high school students. Notably, e-cigarette use among 10th and 12th graders increased from 20.4 and 27 percent respectively, in 2015, to 21.9 and 29.3 percent in 2017.

T-21 laws do not reduce youth e-cigarette use. In fact, e-cigarette use among young adults is increasing, despite more states and localities restricting access to tobacco and vaping products. Policymakers should understand the effects of T-21 laws prior to restricting access to tobacco harm reduction products.

The following documents provide more information on e-cigarettes and 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.

States should reform how they spend tobacco funds – not restrict access to products
In this opinion piece in The Hill, Lindsey Stroud, state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, responds to dozens of proposals in the states seeking to increase the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21. Stroud examines how states are currently using tobacco settlement payments and taxes on smoking prevention and cessation, finding in 2018, the states only spent 3 percent of tobacco moneys on programs helping smokers quit. Stroud points to how states used tobacco moneys for other programs including teacher retirement programs. Stroud implores lawmakers to utilize their current tobacco funding in helping smokers quit and avoid restricting access to tobacco products.

Podcast Series: Voices of Vapers
In this weekly podcast series, State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud talks with researchers, advocates, and policymakers about tobacco harm reduction and electronic cigarettes. The series provides important information about the thousands of entrepreneurs who have started small businesses thanks to THRs and the millions of adults that have used electronic cigarettes and vaping devices to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes.

Research & Commentary: Vaping Taxes Do Not Deter Youth Use of E-Cigarettes–commentary-vaping-taxes-do-not-deter-youth-use-of-e-cigarettes
In this Research & Commentary, Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, examines the effects of Pennsylvania’s 2016 40 percent wholesale tax on youth vaping. Using data from the Pennsylvania Annual Youth Survey, Stroud finds the tax did not curb youth e-cigarette use, and from 2015 to 2017, youth use of e-cigarettes increased in Pennsylvania. Stroud cautions lawmakers to avoid enacting taxes on e-cigarettes in an effort to address youth e-cigarette use.

Research & Commentary: Despite Scientific Evidence, More Americans Believe E-Cigarettes Are as Harmful as Tobacco Cigarettes–commentary-despite-scientific-evidence-more-americans-believe-e-cigarettes-are-as-harmful-as-tobacco-cigarettes
In this Research & Commentary, Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations director at The Heartland Institute, discusses a 2019 study that found the number of Americans who believe e-cigarettes are just as harmful as tobacco cigarettes has increased. Stroud says state legislation that regulates, taxes, and even prohibits e-cigarettes have helped to fuel Americans’ misperceptions and urge lawmakers to move forward with legislation that promotes the use of e-cigarettes as an important tobacco harm reduction tool.

Research & Commentary: Largest Vaping Survey Finds Flavors Play Important Role in Tobacco Harm Reduction–commentary-largest-vaping-survey-finds-flavors-play-important-role-in-tobacco-harm-reduction
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud examines a survey of nearly 70,000 adult vapers in the United States. The survey was completed in response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on the role of flavors in tobacco products. The authors found nearly 95 percent of survey respondents were at one time smokers and the majority reported using flavors at the point of e-cigarette initiation. Stroud compares this to other surveys. She concludes, “eliminating flavors will force [vapers] to vape only tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes, which would likely cause them to return to combustible cigarettes.” Stroud also found research has found e-cigarettes are a key tobacco harm reduction product and could help alleviate state budgets by mitigating health care costs.

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, our 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 Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations manager at Heartland, at [email protected] or 757/354-8170.