Proponents of these initiatives report that most adult smokers started smoking before they were 21 years old, so raising the legal purchasing age to 21 will reduce the number of adult tobacco users. This will then decrease health costs and lost productivity associated with tobacco use.
Opponents of these laws state that it is not constitutional or fair that an 18-year-old individual can be drafted and serve in the military, vote, and marry, but not legally purchase tobacco products.
Tobacco Age Limit of 21 in Illinois
As of July 1, 2019, you must be at least 21 years old to legally purchase tobacco products in the state of Illinois. This means that if you are under 21, it is illegal for you to purchase these items:
- Chewing tobacco or snuff
- Vapes or e-cigarettes
Illinois Governor Pritzker endorsed the Tobacco 21 initiative in April 2019. This made the state of Illinois the seventh state to pass legislation raising the age for purchasing tobacco to 21 instead of 18.
According to the Illinois Department of Health, about 4,800 teenagers in Illinois become daily smokers every year. In 2017, an estimated 7.6 percent of high school students smoked at least once per month. In 2016, it was estimated that about 15.8 percent of adults in Illinois smoked, leading to over 18,000 deaths per year due to tobacco use.
The Department of Health claims that 95 percent of adult smokers actually began smoking before they turned 21. About 90 percent of people who supply cigarettes to minors are under 21 years old themselves.
The initiative was designed to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use in young people. Hopefully, this will decrease the overall burden of disease associated with the use of tobacco products in the state.
Can the Policy Work?
The National Academy of Medicine estimates that state policies raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 could reduce overall smoking rate in adults (over 21) by as much as 12 percent. The biggest decline in tobacco consumption is speculated to occur in those who are 15 to 20 years old.
This could significantly reduce the $5.5 billion in annual health care costs associated with the use of tobacco products. Lost productivity due to tobacco use in adults is estimated to cost $5.5 billion.
What Else Does the Initiative Do?
According to the Illinois Department of Health, other ramifications of the Tobacco 21 initiative include:
- Requiring retailers of tobacco products to update their age verification training processes and programs for employees.
- Requiring updated signs stating the new minimum age (21 years old) to buy tobacco products, tobacco accessories, e-cigarettes, liquids, nicotine products, or other tobacco-related products, regardless of whether they contain nicotine.
- Removing the penalties for illegal possession of products covered under the initiative, including fines or attending smoker education programs.
- Requiring retailers to check the identification of anyone who appears to be under the age of 30 when they try to buy tobacco products.
- Specifying the penalties for violations that occur within a two-year period (24 months), with the first offense being a $200 fine, the second offense $400, the third offense $600, and fourth or subsequent offenses $800.
Arguments for Raising the Legal Age to 21
The arguments for raising the legal age to 21 include preventing vulnerable teenagers from getting hooked on tobacco and nicotine products. Research studies suggest that most people who smoke tobacco products started by the age of 18. A Phillip Morris report in 1986 noted that raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products would cut their key market (ages 17 to 20).
Nicotine exposure during adolescence may affect brain development and function. Adolescents may be more prone to addictive behaviors than adults because the anterior portion of the brain, responsible for decision-making and controlling impulses, is still not developed. Thus, not allowing people under the age of 21 to purchase tobacco products may result in a significant decrease in the number of people who become addicted to tobacco as adults.
Nationally raising the legal drinking age to 21 resulted in a decrease in alcohol-related deaths, especially due to drunk driving accidents, in individuals under 21.
Argument Against Raising the Legal Age to 21
The most often stated argument against raising the legal age for tobacco to 21 relates to other rights that are given at age 18. When someone is 18 years old, they have the right to vote, serve in the military, and legally marry in most states. Some argue that it is basically a violation of an adult’s rights to prohibit them from choosing to use tobacco products.
In most states where marijuana is legal for medical or recreational purposes, the legal age to purchase marijuana products is 18. This new proposal potentially sets up an imbalanced situation where someone is able to legally purchase marijuana but not tobacco products. There has been some speculation that this may push younger people to use more cannabis products since tobacco isn’t available to them.
Opponents also cite data produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that indicate the rate of smoking is already declining in the United States. Prohibiting young people from smoking may have the effect of making smoking more attractive to them. Thus, such an initiative may not have the effects it is intended to produce.
Is There Research?
According to the Illinois Department of Health, research performed in Finland appears to support the notion that smoking rates decline in younger people when the legal age to buy tobacco products is raised and enforced. Daily smoking dropped among those 14 to 16 years old after the legal age to buy tobacco products was raised from 16 to 18 years old in Finland.
Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have raised the minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 years old. It’s likely that other states will continue to evaluate these initiatives going forward.