Wisconsin Underage Tobacco, Vape Sales Rise in 2023

Increase in underage sales linked to confusion between federal and state law, public health officials continue to build awareness and compliance

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reports that underage tobacco and vape sales increased to 13.6% in 2023 from 11.9% in 2022. These are the results of the Synar Survey, an annual statewide assessment of the retailer violation rate for underage sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. In 2019, the rate was 5.5% and reached its highest point in 2021 when the rate was 14.1%. On average, underage tobacco and vape sales have increased 140% since 2019.

“Every year in Wisconsin, commercial and tobacco nicotine products cause 7,900 deaths, result in more than $3 billion in health care expenses, and cause more than $5.6 billion in lost productivity for our economy,” said DHS Secretary-designee Kirsten Johnson. “We know that nearly all people who use commercial tobacco and nicotine start using in their teens and young adulthood. In fact, if a person doesn’t start by age 25, they almost never will. This data shows that we must continue the work to prevent young people from starting to use commercial tobacco and nicotine products.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Synar Survey monitored tobacco and vape sales to those under age 18. However, the three most recent surveys monitored sales to those under age 21. This follows a change in federal law that raised the federal legal tobacco sales age from 18 to 21 at the end of 2019. Wisconsin remains one of only eight states that has not changed its state law to match the federal law, which has caused confusion and enforcement challenges statewide.

In February 2023, DHS launched a public awareness campaign to reinforce the message that 21 is the minimum legal sales age for tobacco and vape products. The Tobacco 21 campaign includes messages for both the public and tobacco retailers. The campaign is part of the effort to save lives, but also to protect Wisconsin’s funding for prevention programs and services. If underage tobacco sales exceed 20%, Wisconsin stands to lose millions in federal funding resources.

“We continue to thank the majority of Wisconsin retailers who comply with federal law and do their part to protect youth by preventing underage tobacco and vape use, but we remain concerned with the high rate of noncompliance,” said State Health Officer and Division of Public Health Administrator Paula Tran. “Not only is following federal law a requirement, it’s also the right thing to do. Preventing underage tobacco sales can prevent lifelong addiction and save lives.”

Free training to help retailers comply with the Tobacco 21 sales law is available at witobaccocheck.org. Wisconsinites who want help to quit commercial tobacco can visit WIQuit.org to learn more or call 1-800-QUIT NOW or text “READY” to 200-400 for free assistance.