Prohibiting Tobacco Sales to Minors May Have Little Impact

Does active enforcement of tobacco sales laws reduce adolescents' smoking?

From 1993 to 1996, the General Hospital Corporation, Boston, carried out a controlled study assessed tobacco sales to minors, youth access to tobacco, and youth tobacco use in six Massachusetts communities.

Although all 50 states already prohibit tobacco sales to minors, these laws have rarely been enforced. Enforcement efforts are widely advocated and have strong public support, but their effectiveness in discouraging youth smoking had not been established.

The project was part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) national program Tobacco Policy Research and Evaluation Program.

Key Findings

  • Investigators concluded that enforcing tobacco sales laws improved merchants' compliance and reduced illegal tobacco sales to minors but did not alter adolescents' perceived access to tobacco or their smoking behavior.
  • Reducing illegal tobacco sales below 20 percent of attempts—the goal of the new federal regulation that establishes 18 as the national minimum age for tobacco sale and requires vendors to verify the age of the purchasers—may not decrease youths' access to tobacco or their tobacco use.
  • Public policies capable of reducing tobacco use among young people may need to combine supply reduction efforts with efforts aimed at reducing young people's demand for cigarettes by making the product more expensive and less attractive.