Background: Considerable controversy surrounds tobacco control emphasis on youth-access-to-tobacco laws, as there is limited evidence that such enforcement reduces youth smoking. In California, access-law enforcement increased substantially in 1996 compared to earlier in the decade.
Methods: Two longitudinal cohorts of adolescent never smokers from the large, population-based California Tobacco Surveys of 1993 and 1996 were followed-up 3 years later (1993-1996 [n = 1764] and 1996-1999 [n = 2119]). We examined transition to any smoking by follow-up with adolescent perception that cigarettes are easy or hard to get, during periods with less and more access law enforcement.
Results: Transition to any smoking by follow-up among 12- to 15-year-old never smokers was identical in the 1993-1996 cohort, regardless of whether they perceived cigarettes as hard or easy to get (about 38%), but was lower in the 1996-1999 cohort for those who perceived that cigarettes were hard (25.9%) vs. easy (36.1%) to get. This differential effect was confirmed in multivariate analyses that adjusted for demographics, cohort, and other known predictors of adolescent smoking.
Conclusions: Increased enforcement of access laws may help protect young adolescents from experimenting with cigarettes by strengthening societal anti-tobacco norms. Such enforcement appears warranted as part of a comprehensive tobacco control program.