Tobacco retailer licensing

Evidence Rating  
Expert Opinion
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

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. Licenses are location-specific, non-transferable, and typically renewed annually. Licensing laws may restrict retailers’ proximity to youth-oriented facilities such as schools or playgrounds and limit retailer density1, 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 licenses1, 3, 4.

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 youth smoking

  • Reduced tobacco use

Evidence of Effectiveness

Tobacco retailer licensing is a suggested strategy to reduce tobacco use and youth exposure to tobacco1, 2, 5. A Santa Clara County, CA-based study suggests 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 30%, which may decrease youth exposure to tobacco6. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects1.

Successful campaigns to establish local retailer licensing laws often include local data, an engaged champion, strong relationships with local law enforcement, and educational efforts3. Licensing fees can generate revenue to help support retailer compliance with licensing laws and enforcement of tobacco control laws1, 2.

A New York and Missouri-based study suggests tobacco retailer density is greatest in primarily black and low income neighborhoods5.

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

Most US states require that tobacco retailers purchase a license. Hawaii, Indiana, and Utah limit proximity to youth-oriented facilities as of 2016; many other states are in the process of adopting similar policies. Six states limit or cap the total number of tobacco retailer licenses available within the state7.

Many cities also have tobacco licensing laws, which can be stronger than state laws8. In California, for example, 148 municipalities have tobacco licensing laws as of 20149. California expanded its definition of a tobacco product for retail licensing purposes in 2016 to include any product made or derived from tobacco or nicotine intended for human consumption, any electronic smoking or vaping device, and any part of a tobacco product10.

Implementation Resources

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.

ChangeLab-CA TRL - ChangeLab Solutions. California comprehensive tobacco retailer licensing (TRL): Model ordinance, checklist, and supplemental plug-ins. 2018.

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.


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1 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.

2 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.

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 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 ChangeLab-Tobacco FAQs - ChangeLab Solutions. Tobacco control FAQs.

9 ChangeLab-CA tobacco restrictions - ChangeLab Solutions. California municipalities with laws restricting youth access to tobacco: A list from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF). 2014.

10 CA BOE-Tobacco license - California State Board of Equalization (CA BOE). California Cigarette & Tobacco Products Licensing Act Law. Division 8.5: Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement Act; 2017.

Date Last Updated