Tobacco 21 is a Catch-22

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.