California Is Raising Its Tobacco-Buying Age to 21. That’s Not Actually So High

Packs of cigarettes on display
Various packs of cigarettes on display

Starting Thursday, you’ll need to be 21 to buy cigarettes in California. That age may sound high, but it matches up with laws of the past

On Thursday, the age at which tobacco products may be purchased in California will increase, to 21. The state’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed the bill in May, bringing California into line with Hawaii as the states with the most restrictive statewide tobacco-buying ages.

But, looking back at the history of tobacco sales in the United States, it’s clear that the idea that 18 is an appropriate age for a person to be able to buy cigarettes—or that 21 is a particularly high barrier—is a relatively new one.

In a comprehensive paper published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, Dorie E. Apollonio and Stanton A. Glantz take a look back at age restrictions on American tobacco sales, going all the way to 1863. As they discovered, age restrictions on buying cigarettes and other tobacco products are older than the average person might think, especially considering that the landmark Surgeon General’s warning on the dangers of smoking only dates to 1964. And within that early history of minimum ages, there are plenty of examples of 21-and-over laws.

Apollonio and Glantz start their survey in the 1880s, when New Jersey banned tobacco from being sold to anyone under 16, with New York, Connecticut, Michigan and Oregon all following suit that decade. During the rise of the anti-alcohol temperance movement, cigarettes were a natural target for reform. And it wasn’t just a matter of teetotalism. Around the turn of the century, children were picking up the habit at shockingly young ages, even to people back then. Though pipes or other tobacco products were an enduring part of American culture, as Cassandra Tate explains in her book Cigarette Wars, cigarettes—sold individually, cheaply enough to be purchased with pocket money—were seen as a danger to young children, prompting the New York Times to editorialize in 1905 that they had “an appalling hold on American youth beyond anything which the public at large had dreamed of.”

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Article Credits: Lily Rothman, TIME