Tobacco 21 in Utah, Washington, and Illinois

Policy Advocacy, Tobacco21

Utah raised raised their minimum legal age for tobacco from 19 to 21 with a bill signed by the Governor on March 25, 2019. The bill raises the age gradually, to age 20 by July 1, 2020 and then to age 21 by July 1, 2021. The Tobacco 21 movement on a local level began just the month before in Utah with the city of Lehi becoming the first to raise the age to 21, followed shortly by Cedar Hills. However, this bill, like the one passed in Virginia was not supported by many public health groups, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and is less than ideal for several reasons including: 

  • It excludes active duty military, as well as their spouses and dependents. Care should be taken to preserve military personnel’s freedom from addiction to tobacco. The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting the military, and some military leaders are now supportive of Tobacco 21 policies that include military personnel due to tobacco’s detrimental impact on military readiness. For more information see “Raising the Tobacco Sale Age to 21 and the Military” from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. 
  • It preempts local laws pertaining to the sale, minimum age of sale, placement, or display of cigarettes, tobacco or electronic cigarettes. Preemption impedes policy change at the local level that advance tobacco control efforts and drive state level change. Preemption has long been one of the tobacco industry’s favored tactics to block progress. Learn more here.
  • It penalizes youth for purchase and possession. The evidence of the effectiveness of purchase, use, and possession (PUP) provisions in reducing youth tobacco use is limited, particularly among those at higher risk for smoking, and the laws may have adverse consequences for youth already addicted, divert police resources, and open the door to inequitable enforcement against young people of color [1] In addition, focusing on the underage purchaser places the burden of responsibility on youth who have been victim to the tobacco industry’s relentless and often targeted marketing and who may already be addicted, rather than holding the retailer responsible for the products they sell. Learn more about PUP laws

Both the State of Washington and the State of Illinois have passed bills to raise the minimum legal sales age for tobacco to 21 and both are expected to be signed by states’ Governors. These states along with Utah join 6 others and at least 440 cities and counties that have taken this important step in reducing youth access to tobacco products. The large majority of smokers start smoking before age 21 – policies that raise the legal age reduce the chances that youth will initiate tobacco use. A higher minimum legal sales age (MLSA) limits social channels through which youth can get enough cigarettes to develop a regular smoking habit. Youth frequently rely on getting cigarettes from the 18-20 year olds in their social circles.[1Raising the MLSA reduces access to legal buyers in their daily routine (especially at school) and limits successful store purchases.[2]  

Learn more about Tobacco 21 policies.