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Tobacco 21

21 means 21, no matter what

The federal law on tobacco sales is clear: it's illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. How does that impact retailers and people who purchase tobacco in Wisconsin? It's simple: 21 means 21, no matter what. Everywhere tobacco is sold, retailers are checking customers' IDs to verify their age.

Raising the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21 helps reduce tobacco use among young people. That's important because tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.—and nearly 95% of adult smokers say they started using tobacco before 21. You can do your part for a healthier Wisconsin just by following the federal law.

Here's what you should know

  • Tobacco 21 went into immediate effect in December 2019, when President Trump signed it into federal law.
  • The federal law applies to all retailers in the U.S., including all states, U.S. territories, and Tribal jurisdictions.
  • Tobacco 21 applies to all purchasers in the U.S., too. There are no phase-in options or exemptions for specific populations (like "grandfathering in" 18- to 20-year-olds or excluding military service members).

Which products are impacted by Tobacco 21?

The law applies to the sale of all tobacco products, without exception. The shape, size, or deliver method doesn't matter. If it contains tobacco or nicotine, the product cannot be sold to anyone under 21, no matter what. This includes:

  • Electronic nicotine delivery systems, including vapes and e-liquids
  • Cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Pipe and hookah tobacco
  • Smokeless tobacco like dip, snus, and chew

What retailers need to know

Wisconsin's tobacco retailers play a vital role in making sure both employees and customers follow the federal law. You can help everyone understand what Tobacco 21 means for them, just by reminding those you work with and serve that "21 means 21, no matter what." You can also help people around you follow the law. How?

  • Let customers know that your store checks IDs and doesn't sell tobacco products to anyone under 21. There are lots of free resources for retailers that can help.
  • Ensure employees follow FDA guidelines for checking customers' IDs to very their age. Why not provide free training on responsible tobacco sales?

Selling tobacco? Verify they're 21.

It only takes a moment to verify a customer's age. You just need to ask them for a valid photo ID, which usually means a Wisconsin driver's license or state ID that hasn't expired. Be extra cautious when checking a vertical ID. If the ID is vertical, it's likely they're not 21 since IDs tend to be horizontal once the person turns 21. Once you have a customer's ID, you can follow the law in four simple steps.  

Step 1: Hold up their ID.

Some IDs look different than others. Wisconsin designs its driver's licenses and state IDs to reflect a person's age. People under age 21 are issued a vertical ID, while those 21 and up receive a horizontal card. Because some Wisconsinites may still carry an unexpired vertical ID after they turn 21, it's important to check vertical IDs carefully.


Step 2: Look at their birth date.

It's not always where you'd expect. On a Wisconsin driver's license or state ID, look for the date under the person's photo.


Step 3: Locate or calculate the date they turn 21.

Some IDs identify when people turn 21. Some don't. Using the FDA's Age Verification Calendar or mobile app is a quick way to calculate a customer's age. No calendar? Take their birth year and add 20. Then add 1 more. (Jan 3, 1984+20+1=Jan 3, 2005.) This is their 21st birth date.

Step 4: Is their 21st birth date in the future?

If your customer's 21st birthday occurs after the current date, they'll have to wait. Don't make the sale and let them know it's illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under age 21.


Train your employees for free

Businesses and employees can pay the price when tobacco products get sold to those under 21. But there's a simple way to avoid costly license suspensions and fines. At, your employees can get trained with a state-approved online tool for learning tobacco sales laws. It's fast, easy, and free!

Get Free Training

Order Tobacco 21 resources

Questions about how to order Tobacco 21 clings, signs, or reference cards? Please contact


Get help to quit

The Wisconsin Tobacco Quit Line

Get Free assistance and a customized quit plan.

  • Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8660)
  • Text READY to 200-400

Live Vape Free

Free help for teens who want to quit e-cigarettes.

  • Text VAPEFREE to 873373

American Indian Quitline

Quit commercial tobacco with free quit coaching and more.

  • Call 1-888-7AI-QUIT
Last revised January 30, 2023