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
Alcohol Tobacco
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
Arkansas 100-500
California 250 CS 75 CS
Colorado Up to 250 3
Connecticut 200-500 50
Delaware 100 1
District of Columbia Up to 300 3 50
Florida Up to 500 2 25 CS
Georgia Up to 300 6 Up to 6 CS
Hawaii 6+
Idaho 1,000 3-12 Up to 300 CS, 6 months
Illinois Up to 2,500 Up to 12
Indiana 2-12
Iowa 200
Kansas 200-500 25
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
Montana 100-300 CS
Nebraska Up to 500 Up to 1 Up to 3
Nevada Up to 500
New Hampshire Up to 300 Up to 100 CS
New Jersey 250 6
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
Vermont 300 3 25
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

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