What is “tobacco retailer licensing” and why would my community want to pursue it?

Tobacco retailer licensing is one way for communities to reduce youth access to tobacco, to ensure compliance with other tobacco related-laws, and to limit the negative public health effects associated with tobacco use.

Under a local tobacco retailer licensing law, the government requires all businesses that sell tobacco products to obtain a license from the government in exchange for the privilege of selling tobacco products to consumers. Many local governments require retailers to pay an annual fee to fund administration and enforcement, such as store inspections and youth purchase compliance checks. Increasingly, tobacco retailer licensing is being used to promote other innovative policy solutions as well, including controlling the location and density of tobacco retailers and imposing additional restrictions on the sale and promotion of tobacco products (see License to Kill? Tobacco Retailer Licensing as an Effective Enforcement Tool).

Strong local tobacco retailer licensing laws have proved effective at reducing illegal tobacco sales to minors. The Center for Tobacco Policy & Organizing conducted surveys to find the rates of illegal sales to minors in communities before and after strong tobacco retailer licensing was put into effect. The results showed that local tobacco retailer licensing is overwhelmingly effective at reducing illegal sales to underage youth; rates decreased, often significantly, in all 31 municipalities surveyed.

A strong tobacco licensing law should include an annual licensing fee high enough to fund sufficient enforcement, as well as financial deterrents for violators through fines and penalties that include the suspension and revocation of the license. The law should also ensure that a violation of any existing local, state or federal tobacco laws constitutes a violation of the local law. The Center for Tobacco Policy & Organizing has published youth purchase surveys, administered by local agencies that provide overwhelming support for the effectiveness of strong licensing programs.

We have developed model language for a tobacco retailer licensing law for California cities and counties. In addition, we drafted supplementary “plug-in” provisions for different policy options that can be incorporated into the law. For example, one plug-in enables communities to prohibit tobacco retailing in a residential zone, while another prohibits tobacco retailing in a bar or restaurant. For more information, please see our webpage on Tobacco Retailer Licensing.