Underage Smoking Generates Profits, Taxes: Prohibition on sale of tobacco to minors poorly enforced

June 30, 1999

WORCESTER, Mass. - Despite a 1992 federal requirement that states enforce a prohibition on the sale of tobacco products to minors, newly released estimates indicate that in 1997 the nation's 3.76 million underage smokers consumed 924 million packs of cigarettes annually, spending $1.86 billion-which translates into nearly $480 million in tobacco company profits.

An article in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health, "State and Federal Revenues from Tobacco Consumed by Minors," shows that smokers age 12 to 17 consume about 3.9% of all cigarettes sold in the US each year, generating $222 million in federal tax revenues and $293 million in state tax revenues. "And that's the conservative estimate," says Joseph R. DiFranza, MD, of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at UMass Memorial Health Care and professor of family medicine & community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, co-author of the study. "If you look at the comprehensive figures, it's 1.1 billion packs, at a value of $2.2 billion, with tax revenues of $258 million federal and $341 million state. And yet it's illegal, in all 50 states, to sell tobacco to kids."

DiFranza suggests that federal and state taxes generated through the sale of tobacco to minors should be used to enforce state laws prohibiting such sales. "Although all states ban the sale of tobacco to kids, only a handful actually do a good job of it," he says. "The states say there's no money for enforcing the laws, but at the same time, they're getting $222 million from these illegal tobacco sales. I'd like to see states pass laws to earmark the tax revenues from those sales for smoking prevention programs."

According to the study, teen smoking rates have increased in the last decade, from a retail cost of $1.23 billion in 1988 to $1.86 billion today. The study, conducted with John L. Librett, MPH, of the Division of Community and Family Health Services of the Utah Department of Public Health in Salt Lake City, used data from a number of sources, including the US Census Bureau and the national "Monitoring the Future Study," which involves more than 50,000 students and has been conducted annually since 1975. Conservative and comprehensive estimates were calculated using the number of youth who smoke daily, the average cigarette consumption of daily smokers, and the price per pack of cigarettes.