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December 6, 2017

Several states and many localities are considering legislation that would increase the age required to purchase and possess combustible tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes and vaping devices, from 18 to 21. Proponents of these new requirements say they will help prevent young people from smoking tobacco, but there is little evidence to conclude that such regulations will deter youth consumption.


The illegality of other substances does not stop young people from using them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in its Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs 58 percent of 12th graders reported consuming alcohol in 2015. Additionally, alcohol has remained “the substance most widely used by today’s teenagers,” with 61 percent of respondents having “consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school.” The authors of the Monitoring the Future Study also found 35 percent of respondents reported having used marijuana in 2015; more than 21 percent said they used the drug within a month of taking the survey.


In every state, alcohol and marijuana are both illegal for persons 18 years and younger to use, including in states where marijuana is legal. But it appears merely passing laws has done almost nothing to curb consumption. Why would lawmakers expect different results when it comes to tobacco cigarettes?


The cost of altering the age at which it is legal to use tobacco and/or e-cigarettes is substantial for states. Policies increasing the smoking age not only cause a loss of tax revenue, they are also accompanied by enforcement costs, including additional police expenditures, judicial and legal services, and other law enforcement costs.


Further, prohibiting persons under 21 from purchasing tobacco and vapor products often leads to the creation or expansion of a black-market economy. Black markets force lawmakers to implement additional measures to combat negative externalities. This is particularly problematic in areas that have high cigarette sales taxes, compared to neighboring communities, such as in Cook County, Illinois.


Cook County has a $3 tax on tobacco products, creating some of the highest cigarette prices in the country. It also has a Cigarette Tax Reward Program, which offers monetary awards of up to $250 to persons reporting those seeking to avoid paying cigarette taxes, including people who use unstamped or counterfeit packs or even stray cigarettes. And while it has been reported $4 million in tobacco citations are written up in Chicago each year, only 15–20 percent actually end up getting paid.


The benefits of Cook County’s various taxes, programs, and mandates do not even come close to outweighing the related costs of these measures. Black markets have forced law enforcement to spend countless taxpayer dollars every year battling, both directly and indirectly, a problem that would likely be much more manageable if taxes were much lower or didn’t exist at all.


Those who support these burdensome taxes say they are necessary to prevent children from getting their hands on cigarettes, but the available evidence indicates these taxes and mandates have failed in this regard. When proposing such policies, officials should consider that the average age adult smokers begin using cigarettes is already under 18 years old, which means passing a law to increase the age of smoking from 18 to 21 would do virtually nothing to reduce adult smoking rates. According to the Surgeon General, almost 90 percent of cigarette smokers began smoking before 18.


More importantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “from 2011 to 2016, current cigarette smoking declined among middle and high school students.” Thus, there is no reason why local and state governments should increase the smoking age, as youth rates are currently declining without these changes.


Further, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices under the same legal categories as tobacco cigarettes is unnecessary, costly, and takes smoking-cessation tools out of the hands of people already addicted to tobacco.


Most data show youth cigarette smoking has fallen in large part because of e-cigarette use. A 2015 study concluded state bans on youth access to vapor products increased cigarette smoking rates in users 12–17 years old. In 2015, the University of Michigan found the majority of teens that did vape did not use nicotine, falsifying claims that e-cigarette use leads to nicotine and cigarette addiction.


Rather than limit choices for young adults, state policymakers should promote tobacco harm reduction tools such as e-cigarettes and vaping devices. Doing so would help resolve health care problems created by tobacco use, not worsen them.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute.

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