State laws prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors. The law imposes civil or criminal penalties on retailers or other businesses that sell cigarettes to minors. State laws define the age below which an individual is a minor.

Retailers that violate these laws are subject to jail time, fines, or revocation of their licenses to sell cigarettes. Under state laws, a retailer is generally liable for its employees if they illegally sell cigarettes to minors. Employees may include:

  • Managers;
  • Supervisors;
  • Cashiers; or
  • Clerks.

Subdivisions of states, including cities or counties, as well as businesses may adopt a minimum age cigarette sale policy that is more stringent than required by law. For example, a subdivision of the state or a business may enact a policy that prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21, even if that state’s law defines a minor as anyone under the age of 18.

Federal law may cease to award states certain grant monies if they sell cigarettes to individuals under 18. For example, the federal law the 1992 Synar Amendment to the Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Administration Reorganization Act provides that a state which sells cigarettes to individuals under 18 years of age may be denied Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SABG) awards.

Similar to the sale of cigarettes, any state that does not have a law prohibiting the sale of tobacco to a minor may not receive grant funds from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services. There is no federal law prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors, however, all 50 states, including the District of Columbia, have enacted laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors.

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

Until recently, many states defined a minor as an individual under 18 years of age. In some states, including Alabama and Nebraska, a minor is an individual under the age of 19. Other states have amended their laws to raise the age of majority from 18 to 21 years of age. In Mississippi, the age of majority is 21.

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

Generally, state laws prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors by making it a civil offense or a crime to knowingly sell, give, or furnish tobacco or cigarettes or cigarette paper to a minor. Typically, the offering to sell cigarettes to a minor is also illegal. A large number of states define a tobacco product to include e-cigarettes in addition to other tobacco products.

Are There Defenses to Selling Cigarettes to a Minor?

In general, there are no defenses to selling tobacco products, including cigarettes, to a minor, except in limited cases. Businesses and retailers must usually ask individuals who wish to purchase cigarettes for a government-issued photo identification, usually a driver’s license to verify their age and identity. If the potential purchaser cannot provide identification or the identification provided appears suspicious or fake, the vendor may refuse the sale.

A vendor is not obligated to take an individual at their word when it comes to their age. In fact, a vendor may not do so. Therefore, a vendor may not assert that the individual appeared over 21 or appeared over 18 as a legal defense to the charge of selling cigarettes to a minor.

There are some states that allow for an assertion of a limited defense. If that defense is proven, civil or criminal liability is negated. An example of this type of defense includes when the seller is able to demonstrate that the purchaser showed what appeared to be a valid proof of age. They may also provide policies and training measures that were in effect to prevent the sale of cigarettes to minors.

Can I Buy Cigarettes for a Minor?

No, an individual cannot purchase cigarettes for a minor. Just as the sale of cigarettes to a minor is prohibited, so is the purchase for a minor. No person may purchase cigarettes for a minor. This includes:

  • A parent;
  • A sibling;
  • An aunt or uncle;
  • An adult friend; or
  • An adult acquaintance.

Any of these individuals who purchase cigarettes for a minor may be committing a criminal offense. The offenses may be contributing to the delinquency of a minor or child endangerment.

Contributing to the delinquency of a minor involves committing an act that causes or tends to cause a minor to become or remain a delinquent. This offense is on the books in 43 states. The laws may vary by state but in California, this offense is a misdemeanor. A convicted defendant may face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 or up to 5 years of mandatory probation.

Child endangerment occurs when an individual places a minor child in their care in a dangerous situation wherein death or serious harm is likely to occur. These laws vary by state, but are serious charges in every state. For example, in California, a convicted defendant can face up to 6 years in prison. In Illinois, a convicted defendant may face up to 10 years in prison.

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

The penalty for buying cigarettes for minors varies by state. In some states, the offense is a violation or a civil offense, and the retailer may be subject to fines for selling cigarettes to a minor. In some states, the fine is set at one amount for the first offense and increases with each subsequent offense. A businesses’ license to sell cigarettes may be revoked if multiple offenses are committed.

In some states, the offense of selling cigarettes to a minor is a misdemeanor offense. Penalties for a misdemeanor offense can include jail time of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000. In addition, the business’ license may be revoked.

How Do I Report a Store Selling Cigarettes to Minors?

If an individual sees a business selling cigarettes to minors, it is important to report this violation. This offense can be reported at both a local and federal level. For example, at the local level in Alabama, an individual may call the Alcoholic Beverage Licensing and Compliance Division. At the federal level, an individual can call the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

If an individual is unsure exactly who to contact, local law enforcement can help point them in the right direction. It is important to report these violations to help keep the community’s children safe.

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

Yes, if you are facing charges for selling cigarettes to a minor, it is important to have a criminal lawyer on your case. An attorney can review the facts of your case, determine if a defense is available to you and represent you during any court proceedings. Since you may be facing fines or jail time, as well as a revocation of a license, it is important to have an attorney on your side.