In the United States, state laws establish a minimum age of legal access (MLA) for most tobacco products at 18 years. We reviewed the history of these laws with internal tobacco industry documents and newspaper archives from 1860 to 2014.
The laws appeared in the 1880s; by 1920, half of states had set MLAs of at least 21 years. After 1920, tobacco industry lobbying eroded them to between 16 and 18 years. By the 1980s, the tobacco industry viewed restoration of higher MLAs as a critical business threat. The industry’s political advocacy reflects its assessment that recruiting youth smokers is critical to its survival.
The increasing evidence on tobacco addiction suggests that restoring MLAs to 21 years would reduce smoking initiation and prevalence, particularly among those younger than 18 years.