Tobacco Retail License

Tobacco Retail Licensing: An Essential Tool to Reduce Youth Usage and Foster Health Equity


While cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death with tobacco products killing half a million Americans each year, most states still fail to undertake a comprehensive approach to enforce the new minimum legal sales age of 21. If laws are not enforced and retailers don’t face a threat to lose their ability to sell tobacco products, then they are not inspired to comply – furthering the ongoing risk of kids becoming lifelong tobacco users and addicted to nicotine.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is empowered to enforce federal tobacco sales laws but has historically failed to do so. Therefore, it has always been up to local authorities to require local retailers to abide by youth protection laws. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over half the states either do not require a license to sell e-cigarettes and other tobacco products or they don’t have a comprehensive licensing program covering all products. This unfortunately does not take into account the number of states that are considered to have a comprehensive Tobacco Retail License (TRL) with fees too low to adequately fund a compliance program or include a model penalty structure to encourage retailer compliance to MLSA laws.

Tobacco Retail Licensing (TRL) has become an essential tool in both protecting kids from irresponsible or unscrupulous retailers, and in leveling the playing field for those retailers who do abide by the rules. TRL reduces initiation to nicotine and tobacco through improved compliance with Minimum Legal Sales Age (MLSA) and other important tobacco sales regulations. And more importantly, it is a proven effective enforcement program that is at no cost to the taxpayer if licensing fees are structured to cover all costs of administering the license.

TRL is a vital regulatory tool that:

  • enables localities to monitor tobacco sales, fund compliance efforts, and create effective penalty and suspension structures for repeated violations
  • closes the gap in tobacco regulation that was left open by both the federal and state Tobacco 21 laws
  • allows a municipality or state to regulate location, density, and type(s) of tobacco retailers permitted to operate in their jurisdiction
  • aide in implementing other provisions such as flavored product restrictions, prohibiting product discounts, creating tobacco-free pharmacies, and enforcing mail-order/internet delivery and point-of-sale restrictions

TRL not only protects youth, it also helps protect disadvantaged persons and communities – including people with low incomes, people of color, and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), who are more likely to experience a range of health problems related to the use of tobacco. The tobacco industry promotes its products more within certain communities; as a result, rates of tobacco use and related health problems are much higher for these communities compared to the general population. Further, those living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are exposed to more tobacco retailers, more advertising, and steeper product discounts. This means we need to decrease the influence of the tobacco industry and put health for all persons over profit.  

See attached for:

  • TRL Best Practices Guide and End Notes
  • Sample Ordinances and Topics in Tobacco Retail Licensing
  • Additional Tobacco Retail Licensing Information and Resources


Tobacco Retail Licensing: An Essential Tool to Reduce Youth Usage and Foster Health Equity – A Guide to Best Practices in Tobacco Retail Licensing (TRL) was authored by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation and does not represent the views or opinions of the organizations referenced in this document.

September 13, 2020

TRL Best Practices Guide
Virginia Tobacco Retail Licensing Research