Illinois becomes only state in Midwest to prohibit adults under 21 from buying tobacco

By Vincent Caruso, Illinois Policy Institute | Apr 9, 2019


If you are 18 in Illinois, you can volunteer to make the ultimate sacrifice for your country, but your state will soon forbid you to sacrifice your health with a cigarette – unless you can find an “adult” to buy them for you.

On April 7, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law House Bill 345, state lawmakers’ “Tobacco 21” bill barring stores from selling tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 starting July 1. Illinois is the first state in the Midwest to raise its smoking age to 21, and the 11thstate to do so nationwide. HB 345 also applies to e-cigarette products, such as vapor pens.

While the bill removes penalties for underage possession of tobacco and e-cigarette products, HB 345 imposes fines and other penalties on store owners who fail to comply with the ban. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a previous version of the bill in 2018, arguing in his veto message that it would place an unnecessary burden on store owners. Illinois’ high cigarette taxes already drive consumers across state lines.

Matt Maloney, the Respiratory Health Association’s director of health policy, told the Rockford Register Star in January that Tobacco 21 is “good for (people’s) health, it saves lives and saves money.” 

But a fiscal note prepared by the Department of Revenue for the 2018 bill estimated the new age restriction would decrease cigarette tax revenue by $35 million to $40 million per fiscal year and decrease sales tax revenue by $6 million to $8 million. The agency collected more than $745.5 million in cigarette tax revenue in 2018, according to the Star.

The Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner’s veto in November, but that effort stalled in the House.

Pritzker may now have to reconsider the $55 million he estimates a 32-cent cigarette tax hike will generate as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. The governor’s budget proposal also includes a new 36% statewide tax on e-cigarettes.

The Tobacco 21 movement, a project of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, advocates for measures to tighten age restrictions on tobacco purchases across the country. More than 330 cities nationwide have adopted Tobacco 21 restrictions, according to the organization.

In October 2014, the suburb of Evanston enacted the first Tobacco 21 ordinance in Illinois, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel following suit in 2016. Twenty-eight Illinois municipalities have implemented local Tobacco 21 ordinances, according to the organization. In September 2017, Lake County became the first in Illinois to implement the Tobacco 21 ordinance at the county level.

The momentum of the Tobacco 21 movement might suggest a smoking epidemic among young adults in Illinois. The opposite is true: Illinois has the third-lowest rate of adult cigarette consumption in the Midwest as of 2018, according to the United Health Foundation. Fewer than 16% of Illinois adults smoked cigarettes as of 2018 – down from a rate of more than 21% in 2012.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette use per capita fell 74% in the U.S. between 1966 and 2015. Adults smoked about 4,200 cigarettes on average, but now it is about 1,000 cigarettes a year.

Smoking costs lives, and its falling popularity is an encouraging development for Illinois and other states. But with the public kicking their smoking habits on their own, it is a puzzle why state leaders made Tobacco 21 a top priority. With no shortage of larger problems facing the state, it makes little sense for lawmakers to be preoccupied with adults’ personal habits.

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