DeGette wants to raise the legal age for smoking cigarettes to 21

Would changing the age to buy tobacco really work to curb the number of teens that start smoking each year?

Rep. Diana DeGette thinks so. Degette recently proposed the Tobacco to 21 Act that would change the legal age to purchase and consume cigarettes from 18 to 21.

The bill evoked cries of “nanny state” and “government overreach” from libertarians quick to defend 18-year-olds’ right to smoke whatever they want.

The congresswoman, who has advocated for stricter tobacco laws throughout her career, argued the act would help curb addiction before it starts.

In 2009, she spearheaded the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. That bill handed over more power to the FDA to control and regulate tobacco, restrict the industry’s ability to advertise its products and require the labelling of ingredients on tobacco products. It also pushed the Food and Drug Administration to study how tobacco purchasing age related to overall health effects.

“About 95 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they turned 21,” said a group of anti-tobacco advocates including the American Lung Association in a letter in support of DeGette’s work earlier this year.

“According to the U.S. Surgeon General, if current trends continue, 5.6 million of today’s youth will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness,” the letter states.

The link between when a person starts smoking and how hard it is for them to quit later on is directly related to the age of a tobacco user’s first cigarette, says Matt Inzeo from DeGette’s D.C. office.

Inzeo told The Colorado Independent that DeGette has asked the Food and Drug Administration to study the effects of smoking on kids who pick up the habit in their mid-to-late teens. The FDA found that teens who start smoking between 15 to 17 have a greater difficulty kicking the habit as adults.

“Almost all lifelong smokers begin smoking before they turn 21,” said Robin Koval, CEO and president of the Truth Initiative, in a statement to The Colorado Independent. The Truth Initiative also cited a 2015 report from the Institutes of Medicine that showed that raising the minimum legal age to 21 would reduce the potential access to tobacco for the vulnerable age group of 15 to 17 year olds.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention agree – each day, more than 3,200 people younger than 18  smoke their first cigarette, and an estimated 2,100 youth and young adults who have been occasional smokers become daily smokers. 

Still, Jon Caldara of the libertarian Independence Institute argues DeGette’s proposed legislation is government overreach.

“Eighteen year olds are legal adults who are free to get married and start a business and give their life for their country,” Caldara said. “They should be able to enjoy a cigarette if that is their adult choice. Treating adults like children will only get more childlike behavior.”

The CDC reports that if smoking continues at the current rate among youth, 5.6 million of the youth in the U.S. under 18 can be expected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness. That’s one in every 13 teens in America under the age of 17.

DeGette argues her bill will cut these numbers. Caldara argues her bill is pointless.

“Smoking rates among the young are at a historic low,” says Caldara. “It’s really easy for the 90 percent of us who don’t smoke to beat up on the 10 percent who do. How odd that Diana DeGette respects people’s different sexual lifestyles — as she should and she’s been a champion of that — but then doesn’t support other lifestyle choices….

“What are these 18-year-olds supposed to smoke after she screws them? You should be able to have the traditional cigarette after sex. So when she’s screwing them out of their rights, what will they smoke after that?”

Photo credit: SuperFantastic, Creative Commons, Flickr


  1. If there is one drug that needs to be warred upon, it is nicotine…tobacco has been a curse to this nation…And yes, I smoked and chewed for thirty years…the most stupid thing I have ever done….I have been tobacco free for fifteen years, and I still see the tobacco companies targeting kids…Big Tobacco has not stopped in their efforts to hurt this Nation…Tobacco should be illegal…Nicotine is more addictive than any Class of Illegal substances, and has no medical value…raising the age is a start…education must be a part of this as well…

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