NYC Raises Tobacco Purchase Age: Will Others Follow?

Guest Blogger – Julia Velonjara, Youth Program Coordinator, California Youth Advocacy Network

The Big Apple is making a big change and we get to the core of the issue! Mayor Bloomberg recently signed legislation raising the minimum tobacco purchasing age (MTPA) to 21. First let’s look at the history of this type of policy. New York City is the largest jurisdiction to increase the MTPA from the federal standard of 18. In 2005, Needham, MA was first to change local laws to age 21. Additionally, four states and a number of other jurisdictions have a MTPA of 19. The Food and Drug Administration is currently prohibited by the 2009 FDA Act from increasing the MTPA above 18 federally, hence this piecemeal approach. The outpouring of publicity around New York City’s law brings this issue into the spotlight. Other recent developments include Hawai’i County Council unanimously voting for a MTPA of 21 and Utah taking up the issue in the next legislative session. Now that we know what’s going on around the country with this issue, let’s explore the pros and cons of the issue.


The 2012 Surgeon General’s Report states 90% of current adult daily smokers first tried cigarettes before age 18 and 99% by age 25. Exposure to nicotine, as young brains are still developing, impacts addiction. Neither of these facts have been lost on the industry. Major tobacco companies focus on researching youth and young adult markets and initiation, evidenced by this 1975 RJ Reynolds memo excerpt: “…the brand must increase its share penetration among the 14-24 age group…which represent tomorrow’s cigarette business.” Current marketing still reflects this, explicitly targeting ages 18-24 and continually recruiting young tobacco users.

The hope is a MTPA increase will reduce youth use and initiation. Before the New York City law is in effect, it may be too early to tell if this is a direct outcome, although there is some supporting evidence. Since Needham, MA passed its law, reported youth use rates have dropped to half of surrounding areas. When England increased their MTPA from 16 to 18, youth use rates also decreased. Similarly, when the U.S. government mandated the alcohol purchase age increase to 21, alcohol use rates in the affected ages declined. However, because of narrow scopes, these and other studies may not represent a more widespread and sustained impact of MTPA increases.

Youth access to tobacco does impact initiation rates through retail and social sources. Tobacco retail licensing laws and fees make it more difficult for youth to buy tobacco products. But social sources are more difficult to control. One argument for a MTPA is that social circles of high school students are less likely to include 21-year-olds than 18-year-olds, reducing social sources of tobacco for high school students.


To some, the ages of 21 and 18 seem arbitrary. Age minimums for voting rights and military enlistment are 18, but purchase laws for products usually lumped in the same category as tobacco, including alcohol, handguns, and marijuana (in legalized states) are 21. Will change simplify enforcement, as many driver’s licenses have a special under-21 format? Will there be conflict or confusion for young retail employees? The New York City law specifically focuses on tobacco purchase rather than consumption. Will this discrepancy cause future issues in enforcement?

Tobacco control strives to protect youth and young adults from addiction. Because of New York City’s population and notoriety, studies analyzing the impact of its new 21 MTPA will provide data to other jurisdictions trying to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use. If effective, should California be one of the next apples to fall?

– Julia Velonjara


One Comment

  1. Alissa Ralston
    Posted Jan 3, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    This will be interesting to follow.

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