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Compliance with minimum price and legal age for cigarette purchase laws: evidence from NYC in advance of raising purchase age to 21
  1. Diana Silver,
  2. Jin Yung Bae,
  3. Geronimo Jimenez,
  4. James Macinko
  1. Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University, New York, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Diana Silver, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University, 411 Lafayette Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA; Diana.silver{at}


Background New York City (NYC) raised the minimum purchase age for cigarettes from 18 to 21 on 1 August 2014. The new law is intended to decrease current smoking rates and smoking initiation among the city's youth. Assessment of compliance with existing cigarette sales and tax laws could aid in determining what may be needed for successful implementation of the city's new law.

Purpose To assess compliance with minimum sales price and purchase age laws in NYC, before change in law.

Methods Ten trained field investigators purchased cigarettes from different types of retailers throughout all five NYC boroughs, resulting in 421 purchases. Investigators noted whether they were asked for identification and the price of their purchase. Multivariable logistic and Ordinary Least Squares regression techniques were used to assess predictors of retailer compliance with sales price and minimum purchase age laws.

Results In 29% of purchases, investigators did not have to produce identification (p<0.05) to purchase cigarettes. Only 3.1% of sales were at prices lower than the minimum sales price. City borough was significantly associated with purchase without identification (p<0.001) and mean sales price (p<0.024). Vendor type (independent vs chain) was significantly related to investigators being able to purchase cigarettes without identification (p<0.001).

Conclusions Variation in compliance with existing laws suggests that more active monitoring of compliance with the new minimum legal purchase age will be required in order to realise the new law's public health potential.

  • Prevention
  • Price
  • Priority/special populations
  • Public policy
  • Surveillance and monitoring

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New York City has been a leader in aggressively regulating smoking, yet progress in reducing smoking over the past 5 years has stalled. Currently, approximately 8% of New York City young people under the age of 18 are smokers, a rate that has stayed steady since 2007.1 New York City has the highest cigarette taxes in the USA, a combination of local and state taxes, resulting in minimum prices for cigarettes at $11.02 and above, and recently increased penalties associated for evading such taxes.2 To supplement current efforts at tobacco control, the New York City Council passed legislation in October 2013 that raised the age for cigarette purchase from 18 to 21 years of age, with enforcement of the new law beginning 1 August 2014. The goal of the legislation is to make headway in decreasing the rate of smoking among young New Yorkers.

One benefit of restricting tobacco sales to those 21 and older is that such regulations may make it more difficult for younger high school students to rely on friends who have turned 18 to purchase cigarettes for them.3 Indeed, the portion of public high school students who smoked and obtained cigarettes from ‘someone else’ (instead of buying them directly) rose from 40% to 52% between 1997 and 2011 in New York City.4 Reducing access to such ‘social sources’,5 ,6 combined with the direct prohibition of sales, offers the potential to make additional progress in reducing smoking among teens and in decreasing smoking initiation.

Features of specific policy tools, such as the tool's ‘directness’ (the degree to which an agency creating a programme or policy is responsible for its execution) and its degree of ‘automaticity’ (the degree and ease with which a tool may use existing administrative apparatus) may influence the success of a policy in achieving the desired goals.7 At the same time, some evidence suggests that additional tax increases could achieve similar ends.8 ,9 While possibly politically more difficult to enact, imposing additional taxes is a relatively simple policy tool to implement, given the state's administrative structure.7 Similarly, increasing the minimum price at which retailers can sell cigarettes may allow states to set the ‘floor’ for prices higher, while allowing localities to further raise prices by increasing taxes.8 Given evidence of price sensitivity among young smokers, these policies are particularly effective in decreasing smoking initiation—even as tobacco companies pursue price discounting strategies to buffer price increases.8 ,10

Concern regarding the enforcement and compliance with tobacco sales laws to minors prompted the US government to mandate specific actions for states to undertake.11–14 These regulations, issued in 1996 as part of the 1992 Synar Amendment, required states to enforce tobacco sales laws by conducting random, unannounced inspections of retailers every year making use of underage purchasers. The amendment requires that no more than 20% of inspected retailers be non-compliant per year. Currently, the state law provides that while vendors are not required to check identification of any individual who reasonably appears to be at least 25 years of age, retailers may not use this as a defence in a legal proceeding involving sales to those under 18 years of age.15 Within New York City, enforcement of these laws are overseen by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA)9 and violations of the law by city retailers can result in state and city fines up to $3500.16 ,17 As of February 2014, 9687 retailers had licenses to sell tobacco within the city. According to the most recent report by DCA on its unannounced vendor inspections using minor volunteers, the non-compliance rate in 2012 was found to be approximately 4.99%, a significant decrease from 19% in 1997 when the inspection-based enforcement programme went into effect.9 No additional funds were provided to DCA to enforce the new changes made in October to the law.

Evidence regarding the density of cigarette retailers in low income neighbourhoods or surrounding schools nationally and in New York specifically has been mixed,18–21 although Frick and Castro20 noted the strong direct relationship between areas of commercial activity and tobacco retailers in New York City. Many of these areas are located near subway or other mass transit stops, an intentional result of city planning efforts nearly a century old. These areas may be seen as ‘retail micro-neighbourhoods’ for shopping, competing to serve those residing nearby and those travelling to the area. Arguably, those underage to purchase cigarettes may be able to find at least one retailer in such areas willing to sell to them. Investigating these micro-neighbourhoods for evidence of non-compliance with current laws can yield insights into patterns of purchasing access for youth.

This study has two purposes. First, we sought to characterise the enforcement environment for changes in tobacco laws by testing how consistently young people between 18 and 25 years old were asked for ID at time of purchase at different types of retailers in retail dense micro-neighbourhoods across the city. We also investigated how consistently the cigarette packages are priced above $11.02, the minimum sales price for any Marlboro blend cigarette package in New York City as of 2014, and if variation in pricing was related to compliance with other laws, borough, and type of vendor.

Data and methods

Our sampling frame included all subway stops across four boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens), and a selection of dense retail areas in the fifth borough (Staten Island). Twenty subway stops were randomly selected in each of the four boroughs and 14 bus stops were chosen in Staten Island. We checked each subway stop for the presence of retail stores within a 10-block radius using Google Maps, substituting three subway stops that did not have any commercial areas nearby with another randomly chosen subway stop as a result. A racially diverse group of youthful-looking field investigators ages 18–21 were recruited to collect data, and instructed to dress similarly in sneakers, sweatshirts or jackets, jeans and without make-up for data collection activities. To reduce potential bias due to sex differences among investigators, we recruited female investigators only to participate in the study, recognising that this strategy would provide the upper bound of a non-compliance estimate.22 ,23 Although legally able to purchase cigarettes, they should likely be asked for identification, given their youthfulness and the specific admonishment in the law that failing to ask those who may be at least 25 years of age for identification would not be a defence if the purchaser was below age 18.

To cross-check the perceived ages of the field investigators, researchers compiled their pictures and asked 10 randomly selected alcohol servers to guess their ages using the Qualtrics online survey programme. As a check on this process, photos of four diverse adult women (ages 32–38) were added to the photo survey, mixed with the photos of our 10 field investigators. The alcohol servers were correctly able to identify the student-interviewers as being below age 25, providing face validity to the assumption that they should be asked for ID when purchasing alcohol or cigarettes.

Field investigators were trained to exit the subway stop and locate three independent vendors (vendors unaffiliated with national or regional retail chains) and two chain vendors (nationally or regionally known pharmacies and grocery stores). Unlike the DCA enforcement programme, the trained field investigators in this study acted without being accompanied by adult inspectors. As they entered each store, they asked for a pack of Marlboro Gold cigarettes, which has been identified as the most preferred brand among teenage smokers.24 After completing the purchase, students exited the store and recorded the type of vendor, whether they had been asked their age, had been asked for identification and the cigarette purchase price. They were also encouraged to add additional notes regarding the transaction, as warranted. These procedures resulted in locating 422 vendors that fit the inclusion criteria and 421 purchases. One chain store vendor in Manhattan refused to sell a cigarette package claiming that the legal age of purchase was 21. Data was collected on weekdays and weekends 19 February–22 April 2014, in advance of the regulations raising the minimum purchase age to 21 going into effect. This study was approved by NYU's University Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects in January, 2014.

We used multivariable logistic regression techniques to estimate the odds of purchasers having identification checked before the sale, with vendor types (chain vs independent), boroughs and cigarette prices as independent variables, and as an interaction term. In separate models we used two-way analysis of variance and Ordinary Least Squares regression techniques to examine the potential effect of boroughs, vendor types and ID check on purchase price. Predicted probabilities for identification checks were calculated using the margins command in Stata V.12.0. Results of non-compliance by primary sampling unit (retail neighbourhood) were mapped using ArcGIS 10.2.


As shown in table 1, there is a significant variation in compliance with required ID checks for cigarette purchases in our sample; 29% of vendors did not verify identification before selling cigarettes to our investigators (p<0.05), with variation across boroughs. The percentage of vendors checking ID preceding the sale was significantly higher for chain stores than for independent ones (85% vs 63%, p<0.05). Thirty vendors (7% of the total sample) verbally inquired the age of the field investigators, and on the investigator's truthful response (as being 18 or above), did not request to see an ID card (results not shown). This practice was more frequent among independent vendors than chain stores. At 64 (70%) of the subway stops or Staten Island bus stops where investigators went to purchase cigarettes, it was possible to purchase cigarettes without identification from at least one vendor.

Table 1

Summary statistics by borough and vendor types, New York City 2014

Thirteen vendors (3.1% of the total sample) sold cigarettes at prices lower than the legally mandated $11.02 per pack for Marlboro blends. Eleven of the vendors were independent vendors, and two were chain vendors (see table 1, column3). Cigarette price varied across boroughs and vendors, ranging from a low of $8.00 to a high of $15.50. Both mean and median prices were lowest in the Bronx and highest in Manhattan.

Results from multivariable logistic regression analyses estimating the effects of borough and vendor type on compliance with ID checks for purchases are displayed in table 2, column 2 and predicted probabilities of identification checks by borough are shown in figure 1. Compared with those making purchases in Manhattan, investigators buying cigarettes in Brooklyn (2.60, CI 1.18 to 5.75), the Bronx (2.40, CI 1.05 to 5.46) and Staten Island (4.41, CI 1.54 to 12.61), had higher odds of being asked for identification, holding type of vendor, cigarette prices, and interaction terms for vendor and borough constant.

Table 2

Predictors of ID check and cigarette price in New York City (n=421)

Figure 1

Predicted probability of ID checks, by borough and vendor type. Caption: Results are predicted probabilities from logistic regression results modelling likelihood of and identification check, by borough, type of vendor, their interaction terms, and cigarette price, as presented in table 2.

Investigator's odds of being checked for identification were more than 32 times higher (32.8, CI 4.56 to 256.56) at chain stores compared with independent vendors, all else equal. Two of the four interaction terms of borough and vendor type were significant, but the magnitude of these differences was much smaller than the main effect of vendor type. Controlling for the effect of purchases made in chain stores being far more likely to require identification checks, investigators completing sales at chain store vendors in the Bronx and Staten Island had somewhat lesser odds of being asked for identification than from independent vendors in those boroughs, all else constant. Cigarette price was not associated with the odds of being asked for identification.

As shown in table 2, column 3, boroughs and vendor types were also shown to be significantly associated with cigarette price. Compared with every other borough, prices were significantly higher in Manhattan, all else equal. Cigarettes purchased in the Bronx were, on average, about $1.22 cheaper (p<0.001) than those purchased in Manhattan. Prices were also likely to be lower when purchased from chain vendors than independent vendors (about 40 cents, on average). Identification checks were not associated with variation in prices, all else constant. Results of models presented in table 2 are graphed in figure 1.

To further investigate differences in compliance across the retail micro-neighbourhoods sampled, the per cent of non-compliance of all retailers approached by investigators in these areas is mapped in figure 2. The figure highlights retail areas across the city, easily accessible by mass transit, where cigarettes were purchased by young people without age verification.

Figure 2

Per cent of vendors not performing ID checks during cigarette purchases in selected New York City retail areas.


Despite substantial attention to implementing strict minimum purchase age laws for cigarette purchasing in New York City, we found that more than a quarter of all retailers approached did not request identification from young women just above the cut-off age who sought to buy cigarettes during the study period. This rate is substantively higher than the overall non-compliance rate reported by the DCA in 2012. Moreover, young people seeking cigarettes at 70% of the retail micro-neighbourhoods we sampled were able to purchase them somewhere in that area without providing identification. This finding provides evidence that teens in a number of retail areas of New York City still have access to purchasing cigarettes despite the minimum purchase age laws, and that the city may not be realising the potential impact of existing laws in decreasing access to cigarettes among this age group. Additional surveillance and monitoring of compliance with these laws is warranted.

Our finding that independent sellers were significantly less likely to ask for identification compared with chain stores points to where the city and state might focus additional attention and resources. Fines and the potential loss of retailer licenses may fall more heavily on independent stores, but for some, these consequences have proved to be insufficient incentive to comply as strictly as possible with the law. It may be that chain stores may have greater resources for employee training and monitoring that support regular compliance with minimum purchase age laws than do independent vendors.25 Directing additional education, training and oversight to independent retailers would be prudent, especially as the change in minimum purchase age law takes effect. Without additional attention to implementation and enforcement, variation across geographic area and vendor types is likely to persist, even as the minimum age is raised.

Compliance with minimum sales price laws was quite high in our sample. Despite variation in price across the city, very few vendors sold cigarettes to our investigators at prices below the minimum legal sales price. Our finding that price variation was unrelated to compliance with identification checks suggests that retailers are not inherently scofflaws of all tobacco regulations. Some variation in price may be responsive to local markets, since prices were lowest in the Bronx, the borough with the highest percentage of low-income people in the city. Yet our findings also suggest that chain stores may be better able to maintain the lowest prices possible for selling cigarettes. Setting the lowest legal prices and training staff to consistently check ID may draw on the same managerial capacity.25 Still, as policy tools, the setting of minimum sales prices and the increasing of excise taxes have greater automaticity and are easier to implement than vendor identification checks. Given the demand elasticity, especially among young people who may not yet smoke, continuing to raise taxes may be a simpler way to reduce smoking initiation.9 However, because these tools are implemented locally, they may both be evaded by cross-border purchasing, or purchasing from American Indian reservations.

From a policy implementation perspective, making the minimum legal purchase age of cigarettes and alcohol age 21 may simplify a vendor's task. Vendors could implement a single protocol for checking identification for both, easing some of the administrative burden of these regulations. As a result, compliance may improve simply as a result of aligning minimum purchase age policies across these domains. Moreover, it may be possible to combine enforcement resources, including those for vendor education, compliance checks, signage and other tools across agencies to increase the reach and overall approach to restriction of both these substances.

Why is our finding of non-compliance for identification checks so much higher than that reported by DCA? Our study did not replicate the enforcement protocols involving minors used by DCA and mandated by the Synar Amendment. The DCA does not regularly monitor retailers’ requests for ID from a population older than 18 years old (but still under 25), although our investigators’ appearance was arguably just as youthful as many 17 year olds. In addition, our investigators entered stores unaccompanied, and in many cases, were sometimes the only customers in the store. While supervision of minors is necessary to meet the protocols mandated by law, such supervision may unintentionally alert retailers to the presence of enforcement. Moreover, when DCA finds a violation to the law, they announce it immediately, possibly allowing others in the store to alert nearby vendors to the presence of inspectors. It may also be that retailers are simply more comfortable selling to minors when no other adults can observe them. Last, the denominators for our rates are quite different than those from the DCA, which includes all tobacco retailers. Our study purposely sampled different types of vendors, and thus independent retailers (those more likely not to check for identification) may be over-represented in our sample. It should be noted, however, that our investigators reported far more difficulty finding chain store vendors than independent ones at these 92 micro-neighbourhood retail areas, because they comprise a large part of the retailer pool in many neighbourhoods. Still, population-level access rates cannot be directly inferred from our findings.

Our study has some additional limitations. First, because vendors were selected based on transportation stops, our sample may over-represent vendors in more well-trafficked areas. At the same time, these vendors may have fewer ‘known’ customers, and arguably compliance should be higher. Second, our field investigators, by design, were above the minimum purchase age and experienced retailers may have become experts at determining the differences between 17 and, for instance, 19-year-old girls. However, the law provides that vendors are not required to check identification only when the individual reasonably appears to be at least 25, and none of our investigators were of or above that age, nor did they appear to be in our validation check with alcohol servers.


Monitoring compliance with minimum purchase age laws is an essential component of a comprehensive tobacco control approach that requires ongoing attention. Given the seriousness of the health problem, and the powerful tools that minimum purchase age laws already are, regular surveillance of and additional resources for monitoring the enforcement of these laws makes sense, is feasible, and may aid substantively in realising their full potential for reducing smoking. Given New York City's prominence in tobacco control policy, it is imperative that attention be paid to the best possible implementation so that other counties and states may follow suit.

What this study adds

  • This study examined compliance among retailers in 92 retail dense neighborhoods in New York City, in advance of raising the legal age.

  • Independent stores were found to have significantly lowers odds of complying with minimum age laws than chain stores, controlling for other factors.

  • At 70% of areas sampled, investigators were able to buy at least one package of cigarettes without ID checks.

  • Chain stores had, on average, lower prices than independent vendors, controlling for geography and ID check.

  • The study suggests the needs for more intensive monitoring of compliance of existing and new laws.


The authors thank the 10 field investigators who gathered the data presented in this study.



  • Contributors DS conceived of the study, developed the data collection plan, provided guidance to the analysis and drafted the manuscript. JYB directed the data collection activities and conducted the analysis. GJ edited and assisted in the preparation of the manuscript, and developed map. JM oversaw the analysis, provided guidance on the data collection strategy and helped to conceptualise the study.

  • Funding This study was funded by the Institute for Human Development and Social Change at New York University.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval New York University's University Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.