By MARSHA MERCER
Nearly half a century ago, Americans decided 18-year-olds were responsible adults capable not only of fighting our wars but also of voting.
In the 21st century, though, some believe these responsible adults need government protection from, of all things, tobacco.
A trend has spread from community to community to raise the age for buying tobacco and electronic cigarettes to 21. New Jersey just became the third state to enact a law, after Hawaii and California.
The measures are well intentioned and seemingly sensible. Nine in 10 smokers start before age 18, and most states, including Virginia, allow young people 18 to buy tobacco products. No one wants young people who believe they’ll live forever to take up a habit likely to ruin their health and shorten their lives.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill July 21 that will raise the state’s smoking age from 19 to 21 in November. It will give young people “more time to develop a maturity and better understanding” of the dangers of smoking, he said.
But, really, can anyone in 2017 reach the age of majority – 18 – and not know nicotine is addictive and smoking kills?
The Maine legislature passed a 21 purchase age bill this month, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it.
If 18-year-olds can be sent to war, they’re “mature enough to make their own decision” and should be allowed to smoke, LePage, a Republican, said in a radio interview.
LePage’s tenure has been fraught with controversy stemming from his racially insensitive and profane outbursts, but this time he’s onto something.
The slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” helped pass the 26th Amendment in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Using the same rationale, a couple dozen states soon lowered the drinking age to 18.
An increase in deadly crashes involving young drunk drivers followed, and states started reversing course. Then, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill linking loss of 10 percent of federal highway funds to states that did not adopt 21 as the drinking age. All states complied.
Tobacco is the latest front in the war to save “kids” from risky behavior. But someone 18 is legally an adult who can sign contracts, get married and be sent to an adult prison. People under 21 serve in combat every day.
Raising the age to buy tobacco is a solution to a problem that’s naturally receding. Smoking rates for teens and adults have been cut in half since the first surgeon general’s report in 1964.
New Jersey, for example, has one of the lowest rates of smoking in the country. About 12 percent of adults 18 to 24 in the Garden State smoke. In Virginia, 18 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke.
Health concerns aside, it’s surprising that young people especially choose to spend their limited cash on cigarettes. The average cost of a pack of cigarettes nationwide, including state and federal excise taxes, is $6.16.
Unfortunately about 42 million Americans and 3 million middle and high school students smoke. The key, health advocates say, is stopping kids from starting.
The surgeon general last year reported that high school students are more likely to use E-cigarette products than old-fashioned tobacco, including cigarettes and cigars. Most E-cigarettes contain nicotine, the report said.
But is an age ban the smartest course to discourage teens from lighting up and vaping? Big Tobacco wouldn’t like it but raising excise taxes still higher could serve as a deterrent for all ages.
On a practical level, we should consider who’s going to enforce the new laws. I bet most of us would rather our overworked law enforcement officers focus on stopping youth violence than go after convenience store clerks who sell a pack to a 20-year-old.
Do we really care as a society if the teen gang member who’s making our city streets unsafe has a pack of cigarettes in his pocket?
Recognizing that young people have the brains to make the right choices in life is a first step toward creating a responsible citizenry. We should respect our responsible adults, not baby them.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.