Tobacco 21 is a Catch-22

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Tobacco 21 is a Catch 21

A Catch-22 is a problematic situation caused by mutually conflicting or seemingly contradictory conditions. Considering raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products is not only a catch-22; it also allows underage individuals to continue to gain access to tobacco products through so-called “social sources.” The result is that little benefit will come from increasing the legal age to purchase a legal tobacco product.

One of the main issues about raising the legal age to 21 centers on whether to make it illegal for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to possess and use tobacco products, in addition to prohibiting the purchase by and sale to these young adults. Those anti-tobacco advocates who propose to raise the legal purchase age to 21 generally allow 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to continue to possess and use tobacco. These same advocates also claim that there will be a health benefit because 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds would not use tobacco products.

However, if 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults are not prohibited from possessing and using tobacco products, they will simply drive to a neighboring city or town where they can legally purchase their preferred tobacco products and then legally possess and use them in their hometown. In other words, the public health benefit claimed will be marginal to nonexistent, but local retailers would suffer the financial loss of tobacco sales to legal-age adults, along with reduced gasoline, snack and beverage sales when these adults drive to nearby towns to patronize other retailers.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study, 86 percent of underage youth obtain cigarettes from social sources, not retail stores. Social sources include adult-age friends, older siblings, parents and strangers. By raising the legal age to 21 without at the same time prohibiting the possession and use of tobacco products by 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, underage youth can still rely on adult-age friends, siblings, parents and strangers to obtain cigarettes and other tobacco products. This means that a higher legal age does not solve the problem of underage youth having access to tobacco through non-retail sources.

Also, if an age-21 law is proposed that would also ban the possession and use of tobacco products, then local police departments generally oppose an ordinance because the police would be tasked with enforcing the ordinance by citing and/or arresting 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults for possessing and/or using legal tobacco products. In other words, criminalizing the possession and use of tobacco by legal-age adults is a policy that law enforcement generally does not support.

This opposition to prohibiting the possession and use of tobacco, while at the same time raising the legal age to 21 to purchase tobacco, usually creates a conflicting standard. Most state laws make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy, possess or use alcohol. However, advocate groups apparently oppose uniformity with the state liquor laws and instead want to allow 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults to be able to possess and use tobacco.

Here is the catch-22: On the one hand, the supporters of an age-21 ordinance claim a health benefit if the age to purchase tobacco is raised, but they fail to acknowledge that there will be little if any health benefit because 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds could still possess and use tobacco, and that social sources will remain the leading access point to tobacco for underage youth.

On the other hand, when the possibility of also prohibiting possession and use of tobacco is raised to be in line with state liquor possession and use laws, advocates tend to withdraw their support because of the criminal penalties for possessing and using tobacco. These positions are contradictory and demonstrate the difficulty presented by considering a policy that changes the legal rights of adulthood.

Contributed by Thomas A. Briant, the executive director
of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO)

This story first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.

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