Tobacco retailer licensing laws require retailers to purchase licenses and follow all tobacco control laws in order to sell tobacco products such as cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, cigars, and electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Licensing laws set a limit or cap on the number of licenses available; prevent retailers from operating in clusters; restrict retailers’ proximity to youth-oriented facilities such as schools or playgrounds; and ban tobacco sales in certain types of establishments (e.g., pharmacies or grocery stores). Licenses are location-specific, non-transferable, and typically renewed annually; licensing fees cover enforcement costs1, 2. Penalties for violations vary by severity of infraction and can include license suspension or revocation. Some state laws preempt local retailer licensing; in municipalities with local licenses, retailers typically must purchase state and local licenses3, 4, 5.
Note: The term “tobacco” in this strategy refers to commercial tobacco, not ceremonial or traditional tobacco. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps recognizes the important role that ceremonial and traditional tobacco play for many Tribal Nations, and our tobacco-related work focuses on eliminating the harms and inequities associated with commercial tobacco.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Reduced tobacco use
Reduced youth smoking
Reduced tobacco retailer density
Evidence of Effectiveness
Tobacco retailer licensing is a suggested strategy to reduce tobacco use, youth exposure to tobacco4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and tobacco retailer density1, 2, 8, 11. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects1.
Prohibiting licensed retailers from operating near schools can reduce tobacco retailer density, particularly in neighborhoods that are low income and racially diverse1. Studies of tobacco regulations in suggest banning tobacco sales in pharmacies can decrease tobacco retailer density1, 4. An Australia-based study suggests that raising the cost of a license may also reduce the number of retailers selling tobacco products12. Studies based in Philadelphia, PA and Santa Clara County, CA suggest that licensing laws that prohibit tobacco retailers from being located within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of another tobacco retailer can reduce tobacco outlets by 20-30%, which may decrease youth exposure to tobacco products and marketing8, 11.
Stronger tobacco licensing laws can reduce initiation and use of cigarettes as well as electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) initiation7 and use by youth and young adults6. Experts suggest making fewer tobacco licenses available and increasing license compliance may improve youth and adult smoking outcomes, such as reduced initiation and increased cessation13.
Modeling suggests the impact of licensing laws on existing disparities varies depending on the location and specific licensing method. For example, laws prohibiting sales near schools appear to reduce retailer density in urban neighborhoods with mostly black residents and residents with low incomes2, which, based on New York and Missouri data, appear to be the neighborhoods with the largest tobacco retailer density and could benefit the most from tobacco retailer bans9. Licensing laws may contribute to greater reductions in the number of tobacco retailers in school districts with lower incomes than areas with higher incomes8. Modeling also suggests laws capping the number of licenses appear equitable in rural areas2. However, the same model indicates pharmacy-based reductions appear inequitable2, and results from New York City’s pharmacy sales ban indicate neighborhoods with primarily non-Hispanic white residents with higher incomes experienced a greater tobacco retailer density reduction than other neighborhoods, which could contribute to increased health disparities1, 14.
Successful campaigns to establish local retailer licensing laws often include local data collection, an engaged champion, strong relationships with local law enforcement, and educational efforts3. Additional best practices include building diverse partnerships with policymakers and supportive retailers, efforts to involve youth and craft messages about protecting youth, and an understanding of local legal and policy landscape that incorporates existing policies15, 16, 17.
Licensing fees can generate revenue to help support retailer compliance with licensing laws and enforcement of tobacco control laws4, 10, 18. Combining tobacco licensing laws with other tobacco control policies may have a greater impact than licensing laws alone1, 8. Experts suggest licensing laws can be strengthened by mandating compliance with all federal, state, and local tobacco laws, using licensing fees for administration and enforcement, and setting penalties such as license suspension and revocation for violations19.
Impact on Disparities
As of 2021, 29 states, Washington, DC, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, and the US Virgin Islands require tobacco retailers to purchase licenses to sell tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Annual licensing fees vary, from $5 in Montana to $800 in Connecticut20. If a tobacco retailer violates licensing requirements or sells tobacco products or e-cigarettes to youth, licenses may be suspended or revoke; this varies by state and territory20. Six states limit or cap the total number of tobacco retailer licenses available within the state21.
In 2018, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit tobacco from being sold in pharmacies22; as of October 2021, 41 municipalities in California, three in Minnesota, and five in New York State, including New York City, also prohibit tobacco sales in pharmacies22. As of 2016, Hawaii, Indiana, and Utah limit proximity to youth-oriented facilities and other states are in the process of adopting similar policies21; however, during 2020, 63% of public schools were located within 1,000 feet of a tobacco retailer23.
Many cities also have tobacco licensing laws, which can be stronger than state laws24. For example, Denver, CO mandates that all tobacco retailers must be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, city-owned outdoor pools, and city-owned recreation centers25.
Organizations such as the Public Health Law Center and American Lung Association offer resources to aid cities and counties looking to create or strengthen their local tobacco retailer licensing programs26. ChangeLab Solutions also features numerous resources regarding tobacco regulations, including a tobacco retailer licensing playbook which outlines ten steps to creating, implementing, and enforcing tobacco retailer licensing policies, and offers implementation technical assistance27.
ASPiRE Center - Advancing Science & Practice in the Retail Environment (ASPiRE) Center. Tobacco retailers. A partnership between Washington University in St. Louis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Stanford University.
CDC-STATE Map - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). State tobacco activities tracking and evaluation (STATE) system. CDC STATE System e-cigarette legislation – licensure: Map of states with laws requiring licenses for over-the-counter sales of e-cigarettes. 2021.
ChangeLab-CA TRL - ChangeLab Solutions. California comprehensive tobacco retailer licensing (TRL): Model ordinance, checklist, and supplemental plug-ins. 2018.
ChangeLab-TRL Playbook - ChangeLab Solutions. Tobacco Retailer Licensing Playbook: 10 strategies for a comprehensive TRL policy.
CounterTobacco-Licensing and zoning - CounterTobacco.org. Licensing and zoning. University of North Carolina.
CounterTobacco-Retail policy - CounterTobacco.org. Tobacco retail policy trends in 2019: Insights from the field.
OSU-Tobacco licensing - Ohio State University (OSU), College of Public Health. Tobacco licensing laws: Improving equity.
PHLC-Licensing and zoning - Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC). Using licensing and zoning to regulate tobacco retailers: Tips and tools. Saint Paul: Public Health Law Center (PHLC). 2016.
PHTPC-TRL - Public Health and Tobacco Policy Center (PHTPC). Tobacco retail licensing (TRL): Promoting health through local sales regulations. Boston: Public Health Advocacy Institute, Northeastern University School of Law; 2018.
* Journal subscription may be required for access.
1 Glasser 2021* - Glasser AM, Roberts ME. Retailer density reduction approaches to tobacco control: A review. Health and Place. 2021;67:102342.
2 Craigmile 2020 - Craigmile PF, Onnen N, Schwartz E, Glasser A, Roberts ME. Evaluating how licensing-law strategies will impact disparities in tobacco retailer density: A simulation in Ohio. Tobacco Control. 2020:1-8.
3 Satterlund 2014 - Satterlund TD, Treiber J, Haun S, Cassady D. Evaluating local policy adoption campaigns in California: Tobacco retail license (TRL) adoption. Journal of Community Health. 2014;39(3):584-591.
4 Ackerman 2017 - Ackerman A, Etow A, Bartel S, Ribisl KM. Reducing the density and number of tobacco retailers: Policy solutions and legal issues. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 2017;19(2):133-140.
5 PHLC-Licensing and zoning - Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC). Using licensing and zoning to regulate tobacco retailers: Tips and tools. Saint Paul: Public Health Law Center (PHLC). 2016.
6 Azagba 2020* - Azagba S, Shan L, Latham K. E-cigarette retail licensing policy and e-cigarette use among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2020;66(1):123-125.
7 Astor 2019* - Astor RL, Urman R, Barrington-Trimis JL, et al. Tobacco retail licensing and youth product use. Pediatrics. 2019;143(2).
8 Lawman 2020* - Lawman HG, Henry KA, Scheeres A, et al. Tobacco retail licensing and density 3 years after license regulations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2012–2019). American Journal of Public Health. 2020;110(4):547-553.
9 Ribisl 2017* - Ribisl KM, Luke DA, Bohannon DL, Sorg AA, Moreland-Russell S. Reducing disparities in tobacco retailer density by banning tobacco product sales near schools. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 2017;19(2):239-244.
10 PHLC-McLaughlin 2010 - McLaughlin I. License to kill?: Tobacco retailer licensing as an effective enforcement tool. Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC). Saint Paul: Public Health Law Center (PHLC). 2010.
11 Coxe 2014* - Coxe N, Webber W, Burkhart J, et al. Use of tobacco retail permitting to reduce youth access and exposure to tobacco in Santa Clara County, California. Preventive Medicine. 2014;67(Suppl 1):S46-S50.
12 Bowden 2014* - Bowden JA, Dono J, John DL, Miller CL. What happens when the price of a tobacco retailer license increases? Tobacco Control. 2014;23(2):178-180.
13 Watson 2018 - Watson KA, Gammon DG, Loomis BR, Juster HR, Anker E. Trends in cigarette advertising, price-reducing promotions, and policy compliance in New York State licensed tobacco retailers, 2004 to 2015. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2018;32(8):1679-1687.
14 Giovenco 2019 - Giovenco DP, Spillane TE, Mauro CM, Hernández D. Evaluating the impact and equity of a tobacco-free pharmacy law on retailer density in New York City neighbourhoods. Tobacco Control. 2019;28(5):548-554.
15 CPHSS-TCLC Roche 2015 - Roche J, Combs T, Walsh H, et al. Reducing cheap tobacco & youth access: New York City innovative point-of-sale policies: Case study #3. St. Louis: Center for Public Health Systems Science (CPHSS), George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC); 2015.
16 CPHSS-TCLC Roche 2014 - Roche J, Sorg A, Walsh H, et al. Regulating pharmacy tobacco sales: Massachusetts innovative point-of-sale policies: Case study #2. St. Louis: Center for Public Health Systems Science (CPHSS), George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC); 2014.
17 Sorg 2013 - Sorg A, Walsh H, Jones J, et al. Regulating price discounting in Providence, RI innovative point-of-sale policies: Case study #1. St. Louis: Center for Public Health Systems Science (CPHSS), George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, Tobacco Control Legal Consortium (TCLC); 2013.
18 Kong 2020* - Kong AY, Robichaud MO, Ribisl KM, Kirkland JH, Golden SD. Characteristics of proposed and enacted state tobacco control legislation in the United States, 2010–2015. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2020;41(3):334-350.
19 Patel 2020* - Patel M, Donovan EM, Perks SN, et al. E-cigarette tobacco retail licensing laws: Variance across US states as of January 1, 2020. American Journal of Public Health. 2020;110(9):1380-1385.
20 CDC-STATE fact sheet - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). State tobacco activities tracking and evaluation (STATE) system. STATE System licensure fact sheet. June 2021.
21 Luke 2016 - Luke DA, Sorg AA, Combs T, et al. Tobacco retail policy landscape: A longitudinal survey of US states. Tobacco Control. 2016;25(Suppl 1):i44-i51.
22 ANRF-Pharmacy - American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF). Municipalities with tobacco-free pharmacy laws. October 2021.
23 ASPiRE Center - Advancing Science & Practice in the Retail Environment (ASPiRE) Center. Tobacco retailers. A partnership between Washington University in St. Louis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Stanford University.
24 ChangeLab-Tobacco FAQs - ChangeLab Solutions. Tobacco control FAQs.
25 Denver-Retail tobacco - Denver, the Mile High City. Retail tobacco store license. City and county of Denver, CO.
26 PHLC-ALA-TRL 2020 - Public Health Law Center (PHLC) and American Lung Association (ALA): California. Comprehensive tobacco retailer licensing ordinance. 2020.
27 ChangeLab-TRL Playbook - ChangeLab Solutions. Tobacco Retailer Licensing Playbook: 10 strategies for a comprehensive TRL policy.
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