Tobacco 21 is a Catch-22


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.