In their efforts to prevent teen smoking, tobacco control advocates focus almost exclusively on tobacco manufacturers. For example, a CDC press release for World No Tobacco Day (today, May 31) attributes youth tobacco use solely to tobacco marketing. Last year’s Surgeon General’s report, “Preventing Tobacco Use among Youth and Young Adults,” was blunt: “Advertising and promotional activities by tobacco companies have been shown to cause the onset and continuation of smoking among adolescents and young adults.”
Severe marketing and advertising restrictions were imposed on manufacturers in 1998 by the Master Settlement, and again in 2009 by FDA regulation. The industry’s role in adolescent tobacco use stops at tobacco retail, where FDA inspections have documented high compliance rates.
The other side of the equation, youth possession, is generally ignored by the tobacco control movement. The Surgeon General’s report dismissed possession laws because they “may distract from focusing on the role of the tobacco industry or retailers.” But there is a precedent for youth possession laws in alcohol control.
The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act required states to set at 21 years the minimum age for purchasing and publicly possessing alcoholic beverages. States risked losing highway funds if they did not comply; all implemented substantial penalties for first-time possession of alcohol by underage persons, including fines, jail time, driver license suspension and community service.
State penalties for minor possession of alcohol are shown in the table below (from web sources here and here). Most states levy fines – from $100 (in Delaware, Louisiana and Michigan) to $2,500 (in Illinois and Tennessee). Some 21 states have provisions for jail time, ranging from 24 hours in Massachusetts to 12 months in Illinois, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Eighteen states may suspend a driver’s license, from one month (in Delaware, Maine, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Texas) to a maximum of 12 months (in Idaho, Indiana and Utah). Nine states can order community service.
Compare the above to the penalties for minor possession of tobacco, shown below. (I was unable to find a consolidated web source, so I reviewed individual state laws.) Only 22 states impose fines, and they are much smaller than those for alcohol. Only Idaho has a provision for jail time (six months). The only other penalty, in 14 states, is community service.
I take no position on banning possession of alcohol or tobacco by underage persons, and I am not advocating for a particular level of punishment for offenders. However, it is important to note that while federal and state governments have decreed that alcohol and tobacco cannot be used by children and young adults (under 21 years and 18 years respectively), states have chosen different penalties for possession of these substances.
Children and young adults are held responsible for possessing alcohol, with substantial penalties for violators. In stark contrast, many states do not hold children and young adults responsible for possessing tobacco, and those that do impose only minor penalties.
It is time to resolve this extreme disconnect in state-based alcohol and tobacco possession by underage individuals.
|State Penalties for First-Time Alcohol Possession and Tobacco Possession By a Minor|
|State||Fine ($)||DL Suspension (months)||Jail Time (months)||Other||Fine ($)||Other|
|Alabama||50-500||3-6||Up to 3||10-50|
|Alaska||Up to 600||CS|
|Arizona||Up to 2,500||6||Up to 100||CS|
|Colorado||Up to 250||3|
|District of Columbia||Up to 300||3||50|
|Florida||Up to 500||2||25||CS|
|Georgia||Up to 300||6||Up to 6||CS|
|Idaho||1,000||3-12||Up to 300||CS, 6 months|
|Illinois||Up to 2,500||Up to 12|
|Louisiana||Up to 100||Up to 6||Up to 6||Up to 50|
|Maine||200-400||Up to 1||100-300||CS|
|Maryland||Up to 500|
|Massachusetts||Up to 0.03|
|Michigan||Up to 100||CS||Up to 50||CS|
|Minnesota||3,000||Up to 12|
|Mississippi||Up to 3 months|
|Missouri||Up to 1,000||Up to 12|
|Nebraska||Up to 500||Up to 1||Up to 3|
|Nevada||Up to 500|
|New Hampshire||Up to 300||Up to 100||CS|
|New Mexico||Up to 1,000||CS|
|New York||Up to 50||CS|
|North Carolina||Up to 200||CS|
|North Dakota||Up to 1,000||Up to 12||25|
|Ohio||Up to 1,000||Up to 6||Up to 100|
|Oklahoma||Up to 500||Up to 12||Up to 100|
|Oregon||Up to 320||Up to 1|
|Pennsylvania||Up to 300||3||Up to 3|
|Rhode Island||Up to 250||Up to 1||CS|
|South Carolina||100-200||Up to 1||25||CS|
|South Dakota||Up to 500||up to 1|
|Tennessee||Up to 2,500||Up to 12|
|Texas||Up to 500||Up to 1||CS||Up to 250|
|Utah||1,000||Up to 12||Up to 6||60||CS|
|Virginia||Up to 500||CS||100||CS|
|Washington||Up to 1,000||Up to 3||CS|
|West Virginia||Up to 500||Up to 0.1||50||CS|
|Wisconsin||Up to 500|
|Wyoming||Up to 750||Up to 6||50|
DL = Driver’s License CS = Community Service