Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Alcohol vs. Tobacco: State Penalties for Underage Possession Diverge

In their efforts to prevent teen smoking, tobacco control advocates focus almost exclusively on tobacco manufacturers.  For example, a CDC press release (here) for World No Tobacco Day (May 31) attributes youth tobacco use solely to tobacco marketing.  Last year’s Surgeon General’s report (here), “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 (here).

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 (here).  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
StateFine ($) DL Suspension (months)Jail Time (months)OtherFine ($)Other
Alabama50-5003-6Up to 310-50
AlaskaUp to 600CS
Arizona Up to 2,5006Up to 100CS
ColoradoUp to 2503
District of ColumbiaUp to 300350
FloridaUp to 500225CS
GeorgiaUp to 3006Up to 6CS
Idaho1,0003-12Up to 300CS, 6 months
IllinoisUp to 2,500Up to 12
LouisianaUp to 100Up to 6Up to 6Up to 50
Maine200-400Up to 1100-300CS
MarylandUp to 500
MassachusettsUp to 0.03
MichiganUp to 100CSUp to 50CS
Minnesota3,000Up to 12
MississippiUp to 3 months
MissouriUp to 1,000Up to 12
NebraskaUp to 500Up to 1Up to 3
NevadaUp to 500
New HampshireUp to 300Up to 100CS
New Jersey2506
New MexicoUp to 1,000CS
New YorkUp to 50CS
North CarolinaUp to 200CS
North DakotaUp to 1,000Up to 1225
OhioUp to 1,000Up to 6Up to 100
OklahomaUp to 500Up to 12Up to 100
OregonUp to 320Up to 1
PennsylvaniaUp to 3003Up to 3
Rhode IslandUp to 250Up to 1CS
South Carolina100-200Up to 125CS
South DakotaUp to 500up to 1
TennesseeUp to 2,500Up to 12
TexasUp to 500Up to 1CSUp to 250
Utah1,000Up to 12Up to 660CS
VirginiaUp to 500CS100CS
WashingtonUp to 1,000Up to 3CS
West VirginiaUp to 500Up to 0.150CS
WisconsinUp to 500
WyomingUp to 750Up to 650

DL = Driver's License
CS = Community Service


Bill Godshall said...


Please note that it was the alcohol industry (not public health activists) that lobbied to enact "underage drinking" laws in all 50 states with punitive penalties for youth (as a strategy to blame and scapegoat youth who did precisely what alcohol industry ads urged and still urge youth television viewers to do).

Similarly, after many of us in the public health community exposed and criticized the massive amounts of cigarette marketing to youth and worked to get the Synar law enacted in 1992, the tobacco industry responded by lobbying for laws in all 50 states to scapegoat the youth by banning youth tobacco possession and usage, while immunizing retailers (who are caught selling to youth) from prosecution as long a We Card appeared on thier door and their clerks signed a form.

Scapegoating youth for the industry's egregious actions was/is also a strategy to protect the tobacco industry from lawsuits filed by smokers who were addicted as minors.

There is no evidence that underage drinking or underage tobacco use laws have reduced youth drinking or smoking, or have even prevented even one youth from using alcohol or tobacco.

But that's because these laws were never intended to reduce youth drinking or tobacco use, but rather the were intended to protect the alcohol and tobacco industry while deceiving the public to believe otherwise.

These laws also render teen smoking
cessation programs (and probably teen alcohol cessation programs) as useless, because most of the youth who attend these programs were required to do so or else face convictions and fines.

Bill Godshall

Matt in Las Vegas said...

In all likelihood, legal drinking of alcohol is equally on par with use of other illicit drugs. The fact that it's legal along with tobacco is kind of a quirk. We tried prohibition and created American organized crime. Tobacco, which is not mind altering, is just a stupid thing. But there's no law against doing stupid things.