State law prohibits the sale of cigarettes to minors. State laws impose civil or criminal penalties upon retailers and other businesses that sell cigarettes to minors. State law defines the age below which is an individual is a “minor.”  

Retailers that break the law are subject to fines, jail time, and/or revocation of their license to sell cigarettes. For purposes of state law, a retailer is generally liable for its employees’ illegal sale of cigarettes to minors. Employees may include managers, supervisors, cashiers, as well as clerks.

Businesses and subdivisions of states (e.g., counties or cities) may adopt minimum age cigarette sale policies that are more stringent than what state law requires. For example, a business or subdivision may have a policy that prohibits the sale of cigarettes to any individual under 21 years of age, even if state law sets the age of a “minor” as under 18. 

Under federal law (the 1992 Synar Amendment to the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration Reorganization Act), a state that permits the sale of cigarettes to individuals under 18 may be denied Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SABG) awards.  

Who is Considered a “Minor” for Purposes of State Law?

Many states, until recently, defined a “minor” as an individual who is under 18 years of age. In the last several years, many states have amended their laws to raise the number from 18 to 21. 

What are the Elements of the Offense of Selling Cigarettes to a Minor?

State laws generally prohibit sale of tobacco products to minors by making it a civil offense or crime to knowingly sell, give, or furnish tobacco, cigarettes, or cigarette paper to a minor.  The offering to sell cigarettes to a minor is also generally illegal.

Many states define “tobacco products” to include e-cigarette in addition to these other tobacco products.

Are there Defenses to Selling Cigarettes to a Minor?

Generally, there are no defenses to selling tobacco products, including cigarettes, to minors, except under a limited set of facts and circumstances. 

Retailers and businesses must typically ask individuals who wish to purchase cigarettes for  government-issued photo identification (typically a driver license) to verify their age and identity.

If the would-be purchaser cannot show identification, or the identification looks suspicious or fake, the vendor may refuse to sell cigarettes.  

The vendor is under no obligation to take an individual at their word when it comes to that person’s age. In fact, the vendor may not do so, meaning a vendor cannot assert, as a legal defense, that the minor “looked over 18” or “looked over 21.”

Some states do allow for the assertion of a limited defense. If the defense is proven, civil or criminal liability is negated. An example of such a defense is the seller’s being able to demonstrate that the purchaser showed valid or seemingly valid proof of age. They can also show that policies and training measures were in effect to prevent sales to minors.

Can I Buy Cigarettes for a Minor?

Just as the sale of cigarettes to minors is prohibited, so is the purchase of cigarettes for a minor. No individual (including, but not limited to, a parent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle, or an adult friend or acquaintance) may purchase cigarettes for a minor. Doing so may be a criminal offense. 

The offense is that of having contributed to the delinquency of a minor (i.e., having committed an act that causes or tends to cause a minor to become (or remain) a delinquent), or having committed the crime of child endangerment.  

What are the Penalties for the Offense of Selling Cigarettes to a Minor?

State law penalties for the offense of selling cigarettes to a minor vary. Some states treat the offense as a violation or a civil offense, and subject the retailer engaged in the offense to fines. A number of state laws provide that the fine is a certain amount for a first offense, then a higher amount for each later offense. The license to sell cigarettes may be revoked if enough later offenses are committed.

Some states classify the offense of selling cigarettes to a minor as a misdemeanor crime. Penalties associated with these misdemeanor fines can include fines and license revocation, and, in some states, jail time of less than a year.

Should I Contact a Lawyer if I’m Facing Charges for Selling Cigarettes to Minors?

If you are facing the prospect of fines, license revocation, or jail time because of an allegation that you sold cigarettes to a minor, you may wish to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. This attorney can explain your rights and options. The lawyer can also represent you at administrative hearings, and at trial.