As the popularity of vaping has grown, so too have the concerns about who those vapers are and how vaping impacts public health. Parents, health professionals, tobacco control groups, and legislators saw that young people, teenagers in particular, were being drawn to this new product — and they really didn’t like it.
This led to e-cigarettes being classed in the same way as traditional tobacco products, and then to a new federal law that raised the legal age to purchase all tobacco products. Which, of course, now included vapes and vaping products.
Age restrictions for vape products are not unusual, with most countries around the world imposing controls on who can legally buy them. Where the United States stands out from most western nations is by setting the legal age to vape and smoke higher than the age of legal adulthood. You can fly a plane solo in the U.S. long before you can walk into a store and legally buy a disposable vape.
In this article, we’ll discuss the legal age to vape in the United States and other countries. We will also go over how the legal vaping age came about, what products are considered vaping products, and more.
What is the Legal Age to Vape?
The legal age to vape in the United States is 21 and has been since December 2019. That was when President Trump passed Tobacco 21 into law, placing the U.S. amongst just a handful of countries that have set the vaping age above 18.
Before the federal Tobacco 21 law was passed, the legal age to vape was much less defined. Individual states and even some cities had their own smoking and vaping age laws, ranging from 18 to 21. New York was the first city to impose a vaping age limit of 21 in 2014, and Hawaii was the first state in 2016. Although it might seem like Tobacco 21 was a sweeping change to who could vape, around 19 states and hundreds of cities had already started imposing Tobacco 21 laws before the federal law came into effect.
The Tobacco 21 law gets slightly confusing around the legality of owning and using vapes below the age of 21. There are currently no penalties imposed for the underage purchase, use, or possession of vaping products. This is often referred to as a PUP law and puts the onus on retailers to uphold the age restriction. The FDA itself states that it is “illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product—including cigarettes, cigars, and e-cigarettes—to anyone under 21. The new federal minimum age of sale applies to all retail establishments and persons with no exceptions.”
The Introduction of the Tobacco 21 Law
The Tobacco 21 law is actually an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It raised the federal legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 from 18, the age set by the Obama administration with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
It was made possible, at least partly, by the Deeming Rule of 2016, which expanded the FDA’s authority to control the sale of tobacco and nicotine to include electronic cigarettes, vape liquids, and any related products. This included the manufacture of vape products, as well as their sale.
The federal Tobacco 21 law is seen as a direct response to growing concerns from anti-smoking groups, among others, about the use of vapes among teenagers. Tobacco 21 is the name of the campaign started by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. The law, which is also referred to as T21, took its name from that campaign.
The popularity and seemingly teen-friendly design of the JUUL vape pens is almost certainly a driving factor behind the campaign to introduce the higher age limit. There was a lot of concern about this new, discreet way of smoking, particularly about the supposedly child-friendly flavors. At one point in 2018, JUUL had a 72% share of the U.S. e-cigarette market and was once referred to as “the iPhone of e-cigarettes.” It was always going to be in the crosshairs of anti-smoking groups, particularly those focused on teen smoking.
But it was also driven by increased, and some would say flawed, scientific research into the potential dangers of vaping at a young age. Most adult smokers started before they were 21, and many before the age of 18. The rationale seems to be that raising the age limit would prevent older teenagers from providing tobacco and vape products to younger ones because fewer of those younger teens would have 21-year-old friends.
Is the Law the Same for Zero-Nicotine Vaping Products?
It would be easy to assume that zero-nicotine vape products weren’t included under the Tobacco 21 laws, but they are. And we’re not just talking about zero-nicotine vape juice here; you have to be 21 to legally purchase almost anything related to vaping.
The Deeming Rule grouped vape juices, e-cigarettes, and e-cigarette components with traditional tobacco products. And that “components” part is the key here. Any part of a device used for vaping, including drip tips, tanks, coils, and even some batteries is included in this legislation.
Because a zero-nicotine liquid could potentially be used with a vape component that can also be used with liquid that contains nicotine, it falls under the same law. As crazy as it sounds, a plastic drip tip for a vape is just as illegal to sell to someone under 21 as a disposable vape containing 50mg/ml of nicotine.
What is Classed as a Vaping Product?
Basically, anything that can be used in the process of vaporizing a liquid that contains nicotine is classed as a vape product. This includes e-cigarettes, vapes, vape pens, vaporizers, e-cigars, and e-pipes, collectively known as Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). It also includes any component of those devices.
Here are some examples of vaping components or parts that are currently regulated:
- A glass or plastic vial container of e-liquid
- Atomizers or coils
- Cartomizers and clearomizers
- Certain batteries
- Vape Tanks
- Drip tips or mouthpieces
- Flavorings for ENDS
Will the Legal Age to Vape Change?
Nothing is impossible, but as it stands, it looks unlikely to change unless solid, long-term proof is found that there are far fewer harmful effects than from tobacco. Perhaps if it can be proven that vaping is a valid smoking cessation device, there may be some relaxation of the law.
What is more likely are even more attacks on vaping, particularly on flavored e-juice and candy-flavored disposables. Anti-vape campaigners have been pointing at flavored vapes being too attractive to teens for a long time, and have tried to get them banned more than once. Several European countries already prohibit nicotine-containing flavored e-liquids other than tobacco and menthol flavors, so it is not unthinkable that the United States could do the same.
Legal Age to Vape Around the World
In countries where vaping is not banned, the legal age to use vape products varies slightly. It is usually tied to the legal age to smoke, which is commonly defined as when someone reaches legal adulthood. In most countries, this is 18, but can be as high as 21 in a few places.
When traveling with vapes and vaping products, it is always a good idea to check official government websites for the laws in each country you plan to visit. Local laws might not only cover the age to use and buy vape products but also what you can carry into the country.
Countries Where the Legal Vaping Age is 18
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
- Ivory Coast
- New Zealand
- Papua New Guinea
- San Marino
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
Countries Where the Legal Vaping Age is 19
- South Korea
Countries Where the Legal Vaping Age is 20
Countries Where the Legal Vaping Age is 21
- Niue, Palau
- The Philippines
- United States
Countries Where Vaping is Banned
- Hong Kong
- Saudi Arabia
Some additional countries allow vapes to be purchased but have banned their use in public spaces. As mentioned earlier, vapers need to know the laws surrounding vaping in any country they plan to visit.
The Bottom Line
Vapers could be forgiven for feeling that the government is putting undue restrictions on their freedom to make their own decisions. Of course, we expect our leaders to put protections in place for potentially dangerous products and activities. But the fact that we can legally be sent to war, drive a car, fly a plane, or buy a house before we can legally purchase some vape liquid or a drip tip seems extraordinary.