Tobacco Laws: An Overview

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 15, 2022
4 min read

Tobacco laws cover how cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and e-cigarettes in the U.S. are manufactured, marketed, and sold to the public.

Tobacco laws also prohibit smoking in some areas and require health warnings on product packages.

Tobacco laws are designed to prevent the serious health risks of smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, and to discourage young people from starting to use tobacco.

Tobacco use can cause or raise your risk of:

Secondhand smoke also can cause lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke in adults, and asthma, respiratory infections, middle ear disease, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in babies or young children.

Smokeless tobacco often is chewed or stuffed under the lip. It’s also called “dip.” Smokeless tobacco can cause cancer, heart disease, stroke, heart attacks, gum disease, cracked lips, tooth decay, tooth loss, and high blood pressure.

Vaping. Vapes or e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco but do have high amounts of addictive nicotine that can harm young people’s brain development.

Tobacco 21. The most important national tobacco law requires you to be 21 to buy any tobacco product. On Dec. 20, 2019, a national law called the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was amended, making it illegal for any retailer to sell tobacco to someone under 21. The previous age limit to buy tobacco was 18. This law is also called “Tobacco 21” or “T21.”

The Tobacco 21 law restricts the sale of these products to people 21 or older:

  • Cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Pipe tobacco
  • Smokeless tobacco
  • Hookah tobacco
  • Nicotine delivery systems like e-cigarettes and vape liquids

Tobacco 21 has no exceptions for military veterans or active-duty military members. They must be 21 to buy tobacco or e-cigarettes.

Menthol and flavored tobacco bans. In April 2021, the FDA created new policies to ban both menthol flavoring in cigarettes and other flavors added to cigars in the U.S.

Many young people smoke menthol cigarettes because these flavors mask the unpleasant taste of tobacco. When menthol is added to cigarettes, it makes nicotine more addictive. This new ban is designed to reduce the use of flavored tobacco so more people don’t start smoking and get hooked.

FDA policies only ban the manufacture, distribution, import, and retail sales of menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco. It’s still legal for people to own or use these products, but these policies may keep menthol and flavored tobacco off the market.

Package warnings and advertising bans. In the 1960s, new national laws required cigarette packages to carry health warnings about smoking. These laws also banned cigarette ads on TV. National laws also ban tobacco brand event sponsorships, cigarette vending machines except in adults-only locations, and free samples of cigarettes and other tobacco products. These laws are designed to curb marketing or sales of tobacco to kids or teens.

In 2020, the FDA updated cigarette package warnings to include stronger statements and graphic images of tobacco-related health problems. These new laws will go into effect in July 2023.

Smoke-free skies. National tobacco law also applies to the skies: In 1990, laws banned smoking on all airplane flights to and from the U.S. to reduce health risks to both airline workers and passengers.

Indoor smoking. Other tobacco laws are different in each U.S. state or territory, including laws about indoor smoking. These laws are designed to lower the risk of secondhand smoke exposure for workers and customers.

Indoor smoking laws vary by state or territory:

  • In 27 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all bars, restaurants, and private and government workplaces are 100% smoke free. No smoking is allowed inside these places.
  • In 29 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, smoking is banned inside bars.
  • In 35 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, smoking is banned inside restaurants.
  • In 35 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, smoking is banned inside private and government workplaces.
  • In Idaho, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, indoor smoking is banned in government offices but not private workplaces.
  • Some states have no indoor smoking laws, or have laws that designate areas where smoking is allowed, or laws requiring indoor places to have ventilation.

Tobacco taxes. Excise taxes are charges added to packs of cigarettes and other tobacco products. These taxes are designed to discourage people from smoking or encourage them to quit.

There’s a federal tax of $1.01 charged to each pack of cigarettes sold. Most states have an additional excise tax per cigarette pack. State taxes range from $0.17 per cigarette pack in Missouri to more than $4 per pack in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, and Guam. In both Palau and Puerto Rico, at least $5 is added to each pack sold, and in American Samoa, the tobacco excise tax is $6.

Cigars, smokeless, and other tobacco products. Other states and territories add different excise taxes to sales of cigars, little cigars, pipe tobacco, and smokeless tobacco. In Florida, the District of Columbia, and Pennsylvania, there’s no added tax on cigars. American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and Palau don’t tax chewing tobacco, and many states have no added tax on the sale of other forms of smokeless tobacco.