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Progress in Chronic Disease Prevention State Laws Restricting Minors' Access to Tobacco

To reach the goal of a smoke-free society by the year 2000, children and adolescents must be prevented from initiating the use of tobacco. However, recent national surveys on adult tobacco use indicate that 90% of all new smokers now begin smoking before age 21 (1). Laws restricting access to tobacco by minors may help delay and ultimately prevent the decision to begin tobacco use during adolescence (2). This report summarizes the content and coverage of state laws restricting minors' access to tobacco.

State laws restricting the sale and distribution of tobacco to minors were described in the 1989 Report of the Surgeon General, Reducing the Health Consequences of Smoking: 25 Years of Progress (1). That review covered laws in existence as of October 1988. Additional data about these laws and about licensure requirements for the sale of tobacco were obtained in a survey of health agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia administered in October 1989 by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) (3).

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting minors' access to tobacco (Table 1). The age for legal purchase of tobacco products is 19 years in three states, 18 years in 36 states, 17 years in four states, and 16 years in one state and the District of Columbia. Of these, 42 states and the District of Columbia also prohibit the free distribution of tobacco products to minors. Seventeen states require signs posted at the point of sale that warn about the age limit for purchase of tobacco. Laws in 44 states and the District of Columbia specify penalties for selling tobacco to underaged persons; these penalties include jail sentences (up to a 1-year imprisonment in Minnesota) and/or fines (ranging from $2 in the District of Columbia to $3000 in Minnesota).

Whereas all states license the production or distribution of tobacco, 23 states and the District of Columbia require state licenses for retail vendors of tobacco (South Dakota requires a license for vending machines only, and three states (Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin) require that local jurisdictions act as the licensing agents). Of these, four states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have laws requiring administrative revocation of the license for specified violations of minors' access laws (other states have provisions for revoking licenses as part of local criminal or administrative proceedings for violations involving sales to minors). Seven state laws specify enforcement processes. Six states either require that cigarette vending machines be placed in areas inaccessible to minors or ban such machines completely. Reported by: Program Svcs Activity, Office on Smoking and Health, Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The development of state and local laws restricting minors' access to tobacco products is a potentially effective public health strategy to prevent tobacco use by teenagers (4). Adequate enforcement is the critical element in ensuring the effectiveness of these laws. In May 1990, the Office of Inspector General (IG), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, completed a study of the enforcement of laws restricting the sale of tobacco to minors. The IG interviewed ASTHO-designated state tobacco prevention and control contacts and, in each state with minors' access laws, the state-designated National Crime Information Center contact. These persons reported the recorded violations of minors' access laws.

The IG found minimal enforcement of the laws; only five states could provide data on the citations for violations of the laws. In 1989, only 32 vendor violations were cited, even though an estimated 1 billion cigarette packs are sold each year in the United States to persons less than 18 years of age (5). In most states, local law-enforcement officials are responsible for enforcement of minors' access laws.

Several successful local enforcement/vendor education initiatives were identified by the IG (e.g., Minneapolis, Minnesota; Marquette County, Michigan; King County, Washington; and Solano County, California). Components of successful initiatives to enforce minors' access laws include the participation of government officials and business leaders; local licensing of vendors that includes revocation provisions for violations; establishment of civil penalties; posting of warning signs; restriction of vending machines; and use of "sting" operations (in which an underage person, sponsored by local authorities, purchases tobacco) (6).

In response to these findings, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has recommended model legislation for states to control minors' access to tobacco. This legislation 1) creates a licensing system similar to that used to control the sale of alcoholic beverages, 2) sets the minimum age of legal purchase at 19 years, 3) sets forth a graduated schedule of penalties for illegal sales to minors, 4) provides separate penalties for failure to post warning signs about the illegality of sales to minors, 5) places primary responsibility for enforcement with a designated state agency, 6) relies primarily on civil penalties rather than on the court system to punish offenders, and 7) bans the use of vending machines to dispense tobacco products (7). The proposed model legislation is intended to make the laws more enforceable and could be enacted at the state and/or local level.

Copies of the IG report and the model legislation proposed by the Secretary are available from CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; telephone (301) 443-5287.


  1. CDC. Reducing the health consequences of smoking: 25 years of progress--a report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1989; DHHS publication no. (CDC)89-8411.

  2. Kirn TF. Laws ban minors' tobacco purchases, but enforcement is another matter. JAMA 1987;257:3323-4.

  3. CDC. State tobacco-use prevention and control plans. MMWR 1990;39:133-6.

  4. Koop CE. A parting shot at tobacco. JAMA 1989;262:2894-5.

  5. DiFranza JR, Tye JB. Who profits from tobacco sales to children? JAMA 1990;263:2784-7.

  6. Office of Evaluation and Inspections. Youth access to cigarettes. New York: US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, May 1990; publication no. OEI-02-90-02310.

  7. Sullivan LW. Statement of Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., Secretary of Health and Human Services, before the Committee on Finance, U.S. Senate, May 24, 1990.

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