At age 20 in the United States, you’re old enough to fight in the military overseas, work full time, have a child, and even vote to determine the future of our country. But apparently Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., doesn’t think a 20-year-old is mature enough to buy a pack of smokes.
Raise the Tobacco Age?
The senator plans to introduce a bill raising the national age requirement to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. McConnell might be well-intentioned, but this plan is ridiculous and will only strip away consumer freedom from millions of young adults with negligible benefits to public health.
According to NPR, this plan “was spurred by an ‘unprecedented spike’ in the number of teenagers who were vaping, or smoking e-cigarettes.” This kind of reaction isn’t surprising. Yes, e-cigarettes contain nicotine, but notably, they don’t contain a fraction of the tar and chemicals that make traditional cigarettes so toxic. The emergence of e-cigarettes has triggered a panic among both concerned parents and worried executives at traditional cigarette companies. Yet there’s no real cause for concern.
It is true that vaping is increasingly popular among young people today. A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that nearly 5 million high school or middle school students used electronic cigarettes in a given month, and usage rates have notably ticked up in the last few years. Of course, this isn’t ideal, as we’d all rather not have young people getting hooked on nicotine.
But it’s far from a crisis. Yes, e-cigarettes contain nicotine, but notably, they don’t contain a fraction of the tar and chemicals that make traditional cigarettes so toxic. This is why e-cigarettes are much less likely to cause cancer, as it’s the chemicals, not nicotine or tobacco itself, that are so carcinogenic. In fact, some research shows that e-cigarettes are up to 95 percent less harmful than traditional tobacco products. As teens started to vape more often, rates of traditional cigarette smoking among young people have plummeted.
So McConnell’s grand plan is a response to a manufactured crisis that’s more driven by panic than any actual cause for concern. Yet the consequences of such a nanny state overreach are very real.
This plan strips 18-to 20-year-olds, who society has declared legal adults, of their most basic right to decide for themselves what to put in their own bodies. The kind of ban McConnell is proposing could only really successfully limit young adults’ access to their preferred types of e-cigarettes. Even worse, such a move won’t really stop young adults from getting their hands on illicit substances—after all, how has that worked out with alcohol? But it will push them toward the black market. Whether that means they buy home-grown products absent any oversight or nab traditional cigarettes off adults they know, we’ll all be worse off.
The kind of ban McConnell is proposing could only really successfully limit young adults’ access to their preferred types of e-cigarettes. It’ll still be relatively easy to buy (or steal) traditional smokes off adults in their lives, but older folks are much less likely to be using e-cigarettes or vapes, so more young people could be pushed back toward what’s unquestionably a more unhealthy habit.
So there are no real winners from McConnells’ efforts, except perhaps the traditional cigarette companies who have donated to his campaigns. Oddly enough, numerous big tobacco companies have fallen in line and endorsed the “McConnell bill” to raise the age to buy their products, and that’s an immediate red flag.
Any time industry giants are encouraging regulation on their own products, you know cronyism is right around the corner. In all likelihood, these companies know that a ban would do more to limit young peoples’ access to their competition, such as e-cigarettes and other newfangled products. Meanwhile, their old-school, cancer-causing cigarettes would still be relatively easy for young people to come by. And that, not the rise of vaping, is a reality worth worrying about.