Research & Commentary: Age Restrictions for Electronic Cigarettes

Published September 30, 2013

Thousands of American smokers trying to quit have tried electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes,” sales of which have doubled in recent years. These devices, designed as nicotine replacement products, have become key components in tobacco harm reduction strategies. As electronic cigarettes grow in popularity, state and local governments across the nation are initiating efforts to regulate and tax the products.

E-cigarettes simulate the physical and psychological act of smoking while eliminating the harmful chemicals and smoke found in conventional cigarettes. They work by vaporizing a solution of either propylene glycol or glycerin with a weak concentration of nicotine. This allows smokers to replace the nicotine in cigarettes in a controlled manner while reducing the harms involved.

Enforcing an age limit for those seeking to purchase e-cigarettes is common sense and fits with current laws regulating other products such as tobacco and alcohol. Over 25 states currently ban e-cigarette sales to minors. This number is likely to grow, according to The Wall Street Journal in the past year six additional states have proposed legislation that would prohibit sales to minors. These laws fine retailers who violate the age laws.

Prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors enjoys wide support, although opposition has arisen from some anti-smoking groups who oppose the restrictions and are pushing instead for a full ban on e-cigarette purchases.

Several studies have found e-cigarettes are an effective and viable option for smokers seeking a nicotine replacement therapy. A recent clinical trial in New Zealand showed e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine patches in helping smokers quit. The American Association of Public Health Physicians has concluded e-cigarettes “could save the lives of 4 million of the 8 million current adult American smokers who will otherwise die of a tobacco-related illness over the next 20 years.”

Like many other legal nicotine products, e-cigarettes are not intended for use by minors. Expanding existing age restrictions to e-cigarettes is a logical step in protecting against abuse. However, legislators must avoid overregulating and overtaxing e-cigarettes, because that would disrupt an increasingly popular and successful method of helping Americans reduce smoking or quit altogether.

The following articles examine electronic cigarettes and efforts to regulate their sale and use from multiple perspectives.

Electronic Cigarette Legislation Prohibiting Sale to Minors in Other States
This chart outlines the proposals considered in various states to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. 

Tobacco and Tobacco Products at a Crossroads in the 21st Century
Tobacco and health policy consultant Scott D. Ballin outlines several considerations he says must be part of the debate if further improvement in harm reduction is to continue. 

The Clueless Crusade to Ban E-Cigarettes
Writing for the Reason Foundation, Nick Gillespie discusses the effort to ban e-cigarettes and the motivation such bans. 

Regulatory Options for Electronic Cigarettes
This fact sheet from the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium examines the perspective of e-cigarette opponents and provides a brief overview of e-cigarettes, their potential health risks, gaps in current federal and state regulation, and some approaches state and local governments might consider to regulate their use, pricing,sale, and marketing. 

Research & Commentary: Electronic Cigarettes
Matthew Glans of The Heartland Institute examines tobacco harm reduction and proposals to regulate e-cigarette use. Electronic cigarettes have quickly become one of the most popular nicotine replacement products and a key building block in tobacco harm reduction strategies. 

E-Cigarette Regulation: Take Sensible Approach to Help Smokers Quit
Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research discusses the efforts to regulate e-cigarettes and why e-cigarettes have come under scrutiny. Stier argues nicotine’s bad reputation comes not from any inherent dangers with the chemical, but with the dangers from its most common delivery device, cigarettes. “Nicotine itself is about as dangerous as the caffeine in soda,” he writes. “Along the same lines, while too much soda can cause weight gain, nobody seriously suggests that caffeine causes obesity. Similarly, e-cigarettes provide the nicotine and the habitual activity of smoking, without the danger of burning tobacco.” 

The Case Against Smoking Bans
Thomas A. Lambert, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, contends the market is the best place to make decisions regarding smoking. He writes, “a laissez-faire approach better accommodates heterogeneous preferences regarding public smoking.” 

Electronic Cigarettes as a Harm Reduction Strategy for Tobacco Control: A Step Forward or a Repeat of Past Mistakes?
Zachary Cahn and Michael Siegel review the existing evidence on the safety and efficacy of electronic cigarettes. They then revisit the tobacco harm reduction debate, with a focus on these novel products. Cahn and Siegel conclude electronic cigarettes show tremendous promise in the fight against tobacco-related morbidity and mortality. By dramatically expanding the potential for harm reduction strategies to achieve substantial health gains, they may fundamentally alter the tobacco harm reduction debate. 

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 Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Legislative Specialist Matthew Glans at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].