Protect Youth by Preventing Use

Raising the minimum tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 — a policy known as Minimum Legal Sales Age or just MLSA21 — has been proven to keep tobacco out of the hands of youth. Reducing access for teens also helps prevent them from becoming regular tobacco users later in life.

In 2019, the federal government enacted a law setting the minimum age to buy tobacco at 21. Colorado also passed a statewide MLSA21 law in 2020 with House Bill 20-1001. While restricting the sale of tobacco to those over 21 and cracking down on underage sales helps keep tobacco products away from young people, more can be done to stop teens and young adults from ever starting smoking, vaping, or chewing.

How does MLSA21 help?

Research shows that nearly 90 percent of all people who smoke daily begin by age 18, and 99 percent start smoking by age 26.1 Young adulthood (ages 18-24) is a period when smoking patterns are often not yet firmly established. This age represents an important time of life because it is often when a person becomes addicted to smoking. Keeping tobacco from 18–20-year-olds slows the progression adolescents follow toward addiction.

MLSA21 laws also make it harder for those under the age of 18 to access the products through their friends. While illegal sales to minors play a role in youth tobacco use, teen smoking is also powered by legal sales to young adults who then provide tobacco to minors they know.2 Thus, raising access to age 21 puts legal purchasers outside the social circle of most high school students, greatly reducing the likelihood of these transactions.2

The impact so far

In 2015, the U.S. Institute of Medicine released a highly influential report detailing the potential public health benefits of a nationwide MLSA21 policy. It predicted a 25 percent drop in youth starting to smoke, a 12 percent drop in overall smoking rates, and 16,000 cases of preterm birth and low birth weight averted in just the first five years of the policy.4 This would happen, in part, because mothers who are under 21 are more likely to smoke while pregnant than their counterparts who are 21 and up.

Additionally, the Institute of Medicine offered a conservative estimate that a tobacco sale age of 21 adopted throughout the United States would prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking among youth alive today.2

Colorado’s MLSA21 law appears to be working as intended. In 2021, the year after the law passed, 51.4% of youth said it would be easy to get electronic vapor products if they wanted, a decrease from 63.2% who said so in 2019. Youth smoking also reached a low in 2021, when just 3.3% of students said they had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days, a decline from 5.7% in 2019.3

What now?

A great first step is to pass a retailer licensing policy which creates a framework for limiting underage sales and providing effective enforcement. If you’ve already passed a retailer licensing policy, MLSA21 is a logical next step.

More information about MLSA21 policies can be found at

See how the city of Edgewater, Colorado, brought together city officials, public health leaders and retailers to pass a MLSA21 policy before it became state law, along with a retailer licensing policy, to protect youth in the community from the dangers of tobacco.

What’s next?

While Colorado has a law to ban retailers from selling tobacco to people under age 21 and retailer licensing program, continued enforcement of these laws and regulations will make it harder for youth to get cigarettes, chewing tobacco and vaping products. Communities can also continue efforts to enact stronger local policies that enhance the statewide MLSA21 law.

Find more information about nationwide MLSA21 policies at

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012.
2. Biener L, Albers AB. Young adults: vulnerable new targets of tobacco marketing. Am J Public Health 2004;94.
3. Trinidad DR, Gilpin EA, Pierce JP. Do the Majority of Asian-American and African-American Smokers Start as Adults? Am J Prev Med 2004;26(2):156-8.
4. Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.