Should the Legal Age for Tobacco Be Raised? Results From a National Sample of Adolescents
RESEARCH BRIEF — Volume 14 — November 16, 2017
Sarah D. Kowitt, MPH1,2; Allison M. Schmidt, PhD, MPH1,2; Allison E. Myers, PhD, MPH1,3; Adam O. Goldstein, MD, MPH2,4 (View author affiliations)
Suggested citation for this article: Kowitt SD, Schmidt AM, Myers AE, Goldstein AO. Should the Legal Age for Tobacco Be Raised? Results From a National Sample of Adolescents. Prev Chronic Dis 2017;14:170255. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd14.170255external icon.
Raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products may reduce smoking initiation and save lives. In a national telephone survey (2014–2015), US adolescents aged 13 to 17 years (N = 1,125; response rate, 66%) were asked about raising the age of legal access to tobacco products and randomized to hear one of 3 ages (19, 20, or 21 y). Most adolescents, across all US regions, favored raising the minimum age of legal access to 19 (75.7%), 20 (80.6%), or 21 (76.4%). These supportive attitudes may be useful to tobacco prevention and control practitioners who seek to reduce tobacco use among adolescents.
Raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products has potential to reduce smoking initiation and save lives (1). Increasingly, cities and states (eg, Boston, New York City, Chicago, Hawaii, California) across the country have implemented policies that raise the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products to 21, the age expected to have optimal impact (1).
Most US adults, even current smokers, have supportive attitudes toward raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco (2). However, views about such policies among young people (the most affected age group of such a policy ) have yet to be measured. Measuring attitudes toward policies is important because attitudes are influential in successfully implementing new policies, enforcing regulations, and understanding unintended consequences (3,4). We therefore examined attitudes toward raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products among a national sample of adolescents.
The UNC Center for Regulatory Research on Tobacco Communication conducted a national telephone survey of adolescents (aged 13–17 y) living in the United States from November 2014 through June 2015 (5). Three independent and nonoverlapping frames were used for sampling, ensuring coverage to approximately 98% of US households. The weighted sample is nationally representative of adolescents who 1) are aged 13 to 17 years, 2) live in the United States, 3) have cellular or landline telephone access, and 4) if asked, could obtain consent from a guardian for a telephone survey on tobacco use. Both informed consent from the parent or guardian and assent from the adolescent were required for all adolescent participants. The sample resulted in 1,125 interviews and a weighted response rate of 66%, which is comparable to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey response rate of 73% (6). All procedures were approved by the institutional review board at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Participants were asked if they supported the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raising “the age of purchase for tobacco products in all states to [age]” and were randomized to hear one of 3 ages (19, 20, or 21 y). Response options included yes (a favorable view of the policy) or no (an unfavorable view). Covariates in the analyses were sex, age, race/ethnicity, parents’ education (asked of parents), sexual orientation, smoking status, and susceptibility to smoking cigarettes (7). To measure susceptibility (7), 2 validated items were used from the original 4-item measure of adolescent smoking susceptibility developed by Pierce et al, an approach used in previous research (7,8).
Using SAS version 9.3 (SAS Institute, Inc) to account for the complex survey design and sampling weights, we entered all covariates simultaneously in a multivariable weighted logistic regression model. Respondents who reported that they did not know or had no opinion (n = 36) and/or were missing demographic information (n = 46) were dropped from the sample, which yielded a sample size of 1,043. We tabulated weighted percentages, adjusted odds ratios (ORs), and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). We set significance at an α of .05 and used 2-tailed tests.
Most adolescents (77.8%; 95% CI, 75.0%–80.5%) reported that the age of legal access to tobacco products should be raised (Table 1). This level of policy support was consistent for adolescents across all regions of the United States (Table 2).
We found no significant associations between the age of legal access to which adolescents were randomly assigned and whether they supported raising the age of legal access (Table 3). Girls had higher odds than boys of having a favorable view of increasing the age of legal access (adjusted OR, 1.61; 95% CI, 1.13–2.30). Compared with adolescents classified as not susceptible to smoking cigarettes, adolescents classified as susceptible to cigarette smoking (adjusted OR, 0.22, 95% CI, 0.14–0.33) and adolescents currently smoking cigarettes (adjusted OR, 0.15, 95% CI, 0.07–0.32) had lower odds. Additionally, gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents (adjusted OR, 0.49, 95% CI, 0.24–0.98), compared with straight or heterosexual adolescents, and older adolescents (adjusted OR, 0.76, 95% CI, 0.66–0.87) had lower odds of a favorable view. We found no differences by race or ethnicity.
In the first national study of adolescents’ attitudes toward raising the age of legal access to tobacco products, we found that more than three-quarters of US adolescents supported national efforts to raise the minimum legal age. Our findings are important for 4 reasons.
First, research shows that raising the minimum age of legal access to 21 would lead to larger reductions in tobacco use among young people than polices that raise the minimum age of legal access to 19 or 20, so it is meaningful that our data show that raising the age to 21 would be just as well received by adolescents as would potentially weaker policies, such as raising the age to 19 (1,9).
Second, young people who are susceptible to smoking (7) would likely be most affected by policies that raise the minimum age of legal access, and yet more than half of these young people supported such policies. Thus, for opponents who suggest that raising the age of legal access to tobacco products would limit individual freedom, our research finds that even adolescents who would be most affected by such a policy still support it.
Third, although most adolescents in almost all groups expressed favorable views toward such policies, we did observe some group differences in attitudes. These group differences can help the public health community to target communication efforts toward adolescents who are susceptible to cigarette smoking (7), adolescents who are actively smoking, and adolescents who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and may strengthen support for and compliance with such policies (10,11).
Finally, although adolescents cannot vote to enact policies to increase the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products, they can advocate for local and state policy change (eg, Hawaii ).
Our study has several limitations, including our inability to control for other variables that could influence the outcomes of our findings and the phrasing of our question, which referred to national efforts to raise the age of legal access to tobacco products, rather than states or localities. Despite these limitations, our study provides new data that US adolescents have supportive attitudes toward raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products. To prevent and reduce smoking among young people, policy makers should critically evaluate how they can best implement and enforce such a policy.
Research reported in this publication was supported by grant no. P50 CA180907 from the National Cancer Institute and the FDA Center for Tobacco Products. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the FDA. Allison Myers is the cofounder and executive director of Counter Tools and holds a royalty interest in their software applications, which were not used in this study.
Corresponding Author: Sarah Kowitt, MPH, University of North Carolina, Department of Health Behavior, 170 Rosenau Hall, CB #7440, 135 Dauer Dr, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7440. Telephone: 704-443-1811. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Affiliations: 1Department of Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 2Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 3Counter Tools, Carrboro, North Carolina. 4Department of Family Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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Table 1. Weighted Characteristics of Survey Respondents and Percentage Who Had a Favorable Viewa of Increasing the Minimum Age for Legal Access to Tobacco Products, Sample of US Adolescents Aged 13 to 17 Years, 2014–2015b
|Variable||Unweighted No.||Weighted Characteristic, %c (95% Confidence Interval)||Favorable View of Policy, Weighted % (95% Confidence Interval)|
|Male||528||52.0 (48.7–55.3)||74.2 (70.1–78.2)|
|Female||515||48.0 (44.7–51.3)||81.7 (78.0–85.4)|
|13||164||16.9 (14.3–19.4)||85.8 (80.1–91.5)|
|14||219||22.0 (19.2–24.8)||85.1 (79.8–90.4)|
|15||229||20.7 (18.2–23.5)||79.3 (73.3–85.2)|
|16||224||21.0 (18.3–23.6)||73.5 (67.1–79.9)|
|17||207||19.4 (16.8–22.0)||65.5 (58.4–72.6)|
|White||837||73.4 (70.4–76.5)||78.4 (75.4–81.4)|
|Black or African American||111||13.2 (10.9–15.5)||75.5 (67.0–84.0)|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||16||2.0 (1.0–3.0)||83.2 (65.1–100.0)|
|Asian||20||2.8 (1.6–4.0)||81.3 (64.1–98.5)|
|Pacific Islander||3||0.5 (0–1.1)||100.0 (100.0–100.0)|
|Other||56||8.1 (6.1–10.2)||72.0 (59.7–84.2)|
|Latino/Hispanic||75||9.3 (7.2–11.4)||73.9 (63.0–84.7)|
|Non-Latino/non-Hispanic||968||90.7 (88.6–92.8)||78.2 (75.3–81.0)|
|Less than high school||64||6.3 (4.6–8.0)||74.2 (61.8–86.6)|
|High school graduate||155||12.9 (10.9–15.0)||82.2 (76.0–88.4)|
|Some college||181||17.9 (15.3–20.6)||78.1 (71.5–84.6)|
|Associate degree||107||10.2 (8.2–12.1)||80.5 (72.8–88.3)|
|Bachelor’s degree||318||30.3 (27.3–33.3)||76.4 (71.3–81.4)|
|Graduate or professional degree||218||22.3 (19.5–25.2)||76.7 (70.4–82.9)|
|Straight or heterosexual||1,003||96.1 (94.8–97.3)||78.5 (75.7–81.3)|
|Gay, lesbian, or bisexual||40||3.9 (2.7–5.2)||60.1 (43.6–76.6)|
|Susceptibility to smoking cigarettesd|
|Not susceptible||854||82.6 (80.1–85.1)||83.9 (81.2–86.6)|
|Susceptible||151||14.3 (11.9–16.6)||51.8 (43.0–60.6)|
|Current cigarette smoker||38||3.2 (2.1–4.2)||35.8 (19.9–51.8)|
|Age proposed by survey as legal age of access to tobacco productse|
|19 y||336||31.0 (27.9–34.0)||75.7 (70.7–80.6)|
|20 y||376||37.7 (34.4–40.9)||80.6 (76.3–84.9)|
|21 y||331||31.4 (28.3–34.5)||76.4 (71.3–81.6)|
Table 2. Percentage of Survey Respondents Who Had a Favorable View of Increasing the Minimum Age for Legal Access to Tobacco Products, Sample of US Adolescents Aged 13 to 17 Years (Unweighted N = 1,043), by Region, 2014–2015a
|Variable||Unweighted No.||Favorable View of Policy, Weighted % (95% Confidence Interval)b|
|All 50 states and the District of Columbia||1,043||77.8 (75.0–80.5)|
|New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)||44||73.3 (60.0–86.5)|
|Middle Atlantic (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)||101||76.4 (67.9–84.9)|
|East North Central (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin)||168||74.5 (67.6–81.4)|
|West North Central (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota)||98||77.4 (69.1–85.8)|
|South Atlantic (Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia)||270||80.7 (75.6–85.8)|
|East South Central (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee)||138||75.1 (67.6–82.6)|
|West South Central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas)||98||80.2 (72.1–88.4)|
|Mountain (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming)||66||78.9 (69.0–88.8)|
|Pacific (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington)||60||79.5 (69.0–90.0)|
Table 3. Associations With Favorable Views of Increasing the Minimum Age for Legal Access to Tobacco Products, Sample of US Adolescents Aged 13 to 17 Years (Unweighted N = 1,043), 2014–2015a
|Variable||Weighted Adjusted Odds Ratio (95% Confidence Interval)||P Value|
|Susceptibility to smoking cigarettesb|
|Current smoker||0.15 (0.07–0.32)||.003|
|Not susceptible||1.0 [Reference]||—|
|Age proposed by survey as legal age of access to tobacco productsc|
|Respondent age||0.76 (0.66–0.87)||<.001|
|Non-Hispanic white||1.0 [Reference]||—|
|Lesbian, gay, or bisexual||0.49 (0.24–0.98)||.04|
|Straight or heterosexual||1.0 [Reference]||—|
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