STATE System Minimum Legal Sales Age (MLSA) Laws for Tobacco Products Fact Sheet

Background

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.1 Among US adults in 2019, about 34 million adults currently (in the past 30 days) smoked cigarettes.2 Nearly 9 out of 10 adults who smoke cigarettes daily first start smoking by age 18; after age 25, almost no adults begin smoking or transition to daily smoking.1

A recent study found that people starting to smoke regularly at age 18 to 20 years have higher odds of nicotine dependence and lower odds of smoking cessation than people starting to smoke at age 21 years or older.3 These findings align with an Institute of Medicine report from 2015 predicting that raising the minimum legal sales age (MLSA) for tobacco products from 18 to age 21 or 25 would likely lead to substantial reductions in smoking prevalence and smoking-related deaths.4 This factsheet describes federal and state laws establishing minimum age requirements relating to tobacco sales.

Synar Program

In July 1992, Congress enacted the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration Reorganization Act, which included an amendment aimed at decreasing youth access to tobacco products. This amendment, named for its sponsor, Congressman Mike Synar of Oklahoma, required US states and territories to enact and enforce laws prohibiting the sale or distribution of tobacco products to individuals younger than 18 years to receive substance abuse block grant fundingexternal icon from the federal government.5

Charged with the task of implementing the Synar Amendmentexternal icon, in January 1996, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) issued the Synar regulation to provide guidance to the states. The regulation requires states and territories to conduct inspections of tobacco retailers to assess whether tobacco products are being sold to underage people; they are also required to collect data regarding those sales. States and territories must comply with the Synar Amendmentexternal icon to receive full federal substance abuse block grant funding.

Federal Tobacco 21

In 2009, Congress enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act) giving the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comprehensive authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco products. As enacted, it applied to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco.6 In 2016, FDA finalized a rule that extended its regulatory authority to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars, and hookah and pipe tobacco.7 After adopting this rule, no tobacco products could be sold to individuals younger than age 18.

On December 20, 2019, Congress raised the federal MLSA for tobacco products from 18 to 21 years. This legislation, known as Tobacco 21 or T21, became effective immediately, and it is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product – including cigarettes, cigars, and e-cigarettes – to anyone younger than 21 years.8 The new federal MLSA applies to all retail establishments and people with no exceptions; it applies to retailers in all states, DC, all US territories, and on tribal lands. There is no exemption for active duty military personnel or military veterans between the ages of 18 and 20 years,8 as had previously existed in some states.9

With the passage of the federal T21 law, there have been corresponding updates to the Synar program as well. To receive their substance abuse block grant funds, states and territories must now report on illegal sales to people younger than age 21, regardless of whether they have raised their own MLSA to 21.5

State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Actions to Establish a MLSA of 21

The CDC State Tobacco Activities Tracking and Evaluation (STATE) System includes a range of information about the MLSA law in each state and territory, and in DC. This information is updated quarterly and includes provisions such as minimum sales age, enforcement entity, and penalties for violation in each jurisdiction. According to the STATE System, before passage of the federal T21 law on December 20, 2019, 19 states, 2 territories (Guam and Palau), and DC had already enacted legislation raising their MLSA for tobacco products to 21 years. Since passage of the federal T21 law, an additional 14 states and 1 territory (Northern Mariana Islands) have raised their MLSA for tobacco products to 21 years. Through March 31, 2021, there are 37 jurisdictions (33 states, 3 territories, and DC)  that have enacted a MLSA of 21 years for purchasing any tobacco product.10 However, retailers in jurisdictions that have not raised their MLSA to 21 years still must comply with the federal T21 law.

The federal T21 law does not preclude state, local, tribal, or territorial governments from passing a law that that is more restrictive than the federal law, including raising the MLSA for tobacco products above 21 years. Although there is no mandate that states and territories establish a MLSA of age 21 to conform to federal law, it may be easier and more efficient for states that have increased their MLSA to 21 years to ensure compliance with Synar requirements. For example, in jurisdictions where the state and federal MLSA are aligned, there is more clarity for retailers and enforcement officials. Data gathered in connection with enforcing state youth access laws can also be used for Synar compliance.

*Regarding tobacco purchases, Mississippi state law prohibits a person younger than age 21 from purchasing any tobacco product or alternative nicotine product (including e-cigarettes). However, for tobacco sales, Mississippi only prohibits the sale of alternative nicotine products (including e-cigarettes) to individuals younger than age 21. Since Mississippi’s MLSA for cigarettes and other tobacco products remains at age 18, Mississippi is not counted among the states that have raised their MLSA to 21 years within STATE system.

References
  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking-50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2014.
  2. Cornelius ME, Wang TW, Jamal A, Loretan CG, Neff LJ. Tobacco Product Use Among Adults – United States, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020; 69:1736-1742. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6946a4external icon.
  3. Ali FRM, Agaku IT, Sharapova SR, Reimels EA, Homa DM. Onset of regular smoking before age 21 and subsequent nicotine dependence and cessation behavior among US adult smokers. Prev Chronic Dis. 2020; 17:190176. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd17.190176external icon.
  4. Institute of Medicine. Public Health Implications of Raising the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2015.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Revision to SAMHSA’s Synar Guidance on Tobacco Regulation. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2020. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/synar-guidance-tobacco-21.pdfpdf iconexternal icon. Accessed April 6, 2021.
  6. 21 U.S.C. § 387.
  7. 81 FR 28973 (Published May 10, 2016).
  8. Food and Drug Administration. Tobacco 21 website. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/retail-sales-tobacco-products/tobacco-21external icon. Accessed April 6, 2021.
  9. Marynak K, Mahoney M, Williams KS, Tynan MA, Reimels E, King BA. State and Territorial Laws Prohibiting Sales of Tobacco Products to Persons Aged <21 years – United States, December 20, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020; 69:189-192. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6907a3external icon.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC State Tobacco Activities Tracking and Evaluation (STATE) System. CDC STATE System Tobacco Legislation–Youth Access website. https://www.cdc.gov/STATESystem/. Accessed April 6, 2021.

DISCLAIMER: The STATE System contains data synthesized from state-level statutory laws. It does not contain state-level regulations; measures implemented by counties, cities, or other localities; opinions of Attorneys General; or relevant case law decisions for tobacco control topics other than preemption; all of which may vary significantly from the laws reported in the database, fact sheets, and publications.