Federal Tobacco 21 Law: Answers to Common City Questions

January 21, 2020

The adoption of a federal law restricting the sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 21 has raised many questions related to city tobacco enforcement.

As of Dec. 20, changes to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act prohibit retailers from selling tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. The League has received many questions related to how the new law affects Minnesota cities.

Is our city required to enforce the new federal law?

The new law is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and does not call for any city action. The FDA is currently updating its regulations to enforce the new law with final adoption expected in the upcoming months.

Does that mean our city cannot enforce the new T-21 law? Not necessarily. It is now a violation of federal law for any retailer to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. Most city licensing ordinances require tobacco retailers to comply with all applicable state and federal laws.

If a retailer violates the federal law by selling to someone under 21, that retailer is most likely also violating the terms of a local tobacco retail license. Cities should review their current ordinances to determine how the new law applies to local regulations.

Should our city update its ordinance or wait for guidance from the FDA?

Cities that have not adopted their own T-21 regulations, in consultation with their city attorney, should review their ordinances and determine if changes are needed. Changing an ordinance may be necessary to ensure consistency with the federal law.

Cities are required to give at least 30 days mailed notice to current license holders prior to amending their current ordinances.

Can our city adopt an ordinance specifically allowing tobacco sales to those over 18?

No. While a city can still adopt a higher minimum age, the minimum age must be at least 21.

Can we now use individuals between age 18-21 for compliance checks?

State law still requires at least one compliance check to be done by a minor over age 15 but under age 18. Until the state law is changed, cities must perform at least one compliance check with an individual under age 18. Additional compliance checks must be consistent with city ordinance.

How does the new law affect possession, use, and purchase provisions in our city ordinance?

The new federal law does not regulate the possession, use, or purchase (PUP) of tobacco products. Cities will need to consult their city attorney to determine if the new law has any effect on existing PUP provisions.

The League will be tracking this issue and updating its members as new information becomes available.

For more background information on this topic, read a previous Cities Bulletin article.