Should the tobacco age be increased from 18 to 21, nationwide?
Minimum ages to purchase tobacco are generally a matter of local or state law, rather than federal. By 1920 more than half of states had a minimum age of 21. That is, until industry lobbying pushed most of those minimum ages down to around 18. Virtually nowhere in the U.S. saw a minimum age of 21 again.
At least until the past three years, when a surge of states and cities have joined a national advocacy movement to raise the age to 21. Currently 12 states have implemented or passed the measure, and they’re not all blue states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.
The teen smoking rate has actually seen an uptick recently, reversing a two-decade decline in youth and teen smoking, largely because of newer products such as vaping and e-cigarettes. Many customers believed that vaping and e-cigarettes were safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes, but health experts increasingly dispute this.
What the legislation does
The Tobacco to 21 Act would set a national minimum tobacco purchasing age of 21. This would apply to all tobacco products, including vaping and e-cigarettes.
Other similar alternative bills, including one supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), contain enough loopholes and carveouts that Big Tobacco actually supports it. Not so with the Tobacco to 21 Act.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill protects public health, amid a recent disturbing uptick in youth and teen smoking, after what was otherwise a persistent decline throughout the entire 21st century.
“Congress has a responsibility to enact laws to protect the public’s health,” Rep. DeGette said in a press release. “And right now, tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in our country.”
“Unlike other bills drafted by the industry, our bill has no special-interest carve-outs or limitations on state and local governments,” Rep. DeGette continued. “Unlike other bills, our bill was drafted with one simple goal in mind and that’s to protect public health by keeping tobacco products out of the hands of young people.”
“The research is clear: raising the minimum smoking age to 21 would save lives,” Sen. Schatz said in a press release. “Hawaii became the first state to raise the age limit, and since then, 11 other states have joined us. Our bipartisan bill would bring all 50 states together, so we can protect our young people from this addiction, and save lives.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill is unnecessarily intrusive by the government.
“If people are old enough to be sent to war at the age of 18, they certainly are old enough to make personal decisions about tobacco use,” The Columbianeditorialized in 2014 amid Washington state’s debate, which ultimately passed and will take effect in 2020. “In this regard, the difference between tobacco and alcohol [with a 21 age minimum] is easily delineated. Alcohol use can endanger innocents; on the other hand, we are not aware of anybody causing a car crash while under the influence of tobacco.”
Even some who support the aim of lowering tobacco use question the effectiveness of raising the minimum age.
“Prior to this trend of raising the age to 21, the smoking rate was already decreasing these past few years [for all age groups],” Eric Levenson wrote for_The Wire_ and The Atlantic in 2014. “Last year, 18 percent of Americans smoked, down from about 21 percent in 2009, and almost 25 percent in 1997. This decline isn’t due to age raises, but to other smoking laws, including cigarette taxes and smoke-free workplace rules.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted six bipartisan cosponsors: four Republicans and two Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Senate version has attracted three bipartisan cosponsors: two Republicans and one Democrat. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
However, it wouldn’t be surprising if Senate Majority Leader McConnell refuses to let that version up for a vote, instead preferring a vote on his own soon-to-be-released watered down alternative that’s far more supported by the industry.