Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently signed legislation to raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and other nicotine products to 21. The move isn’t just a misguided nanny-state intervention into the decisions of adults, but it also spells disaster for public health.
By the age of 18, Americans can sign contracts, vote, and even (theoretically) get drafted into the army. They are also tried as adults and, at times, face life prison sentences for crimes. There is even talk now about lowering the voting age to 16, with 14 states and Washington DC already allowing teenagers to pre-register to vote.
It’s a laughable notion that an 18- to 21-year-old can be locked up with career criminals but can’t legally buy a cigarette at a corner store.
"I myself have always been for lowering the voting age to 16," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently said. "I think it's really important to capture kids when they're in high school, when they're interested in all of this, when they're learning about government, to be able to vote."
Earlier this month, freshman Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley filed legislation that would require states to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in federal elections.
Voting matters aside, it’s a laughable notion that an 18- to 21-year-old can be locked up with career criminals and exposed to an American prison’s brutality—but can’t legally buy a cigarette at a corner store.
There are effective deterrents in tobacco control policy, like cigarette tax hikes. But the same can’t be said for new age restrictions. Longstanding bans on cigarette sales to those under 18 have done nothing to prevent over 8.1 percent of American high schoolers and 1.8 percent of middle schoolers from taking up smoking. It’s not hard to see why: It’s fairly easy for youngsters to borrow cigarettes off adults or to ask adults to purchase cigarettes for them. There’s no reason to think things will play out differently if the legal age is raised to 21.
Higher Age Limits Backfire
Proponents of the law might argue that raising the age requirement does have precedent. After all, the legal drinking age is 21. But that’s not even a good example. Indeed, many developed, western nations maintain a legal drinking age that is far lower than 21—sometimes as low as 16—and have lower rates of alcohol-fueled violence and binge drinking.
Indeed, more than 120 college presidents have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, which notes the negative consequences of America’s late legal drinking age, like higher rates of binge drinking, the proliferation of fake IDs, and the impracticality of enforcement. Aside from impinging on individual liberty, this also means less tax revenue for the government and more for the black market.The age requirement also moves drinkers from open, social environments that are easier to regulate—like bars—to locked dorm rooms, apartments, or other discrete locations where irresponsible behavior is easier to hide and more likely to occur.
Raising the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and nicotine products will also play into the hands of the tobacco black market—already a multi-billion dollar global industry known to fund other illicit enterprises like human trafficking and terrorism. Aside from impinging on individual liberty, this also means less tax revenue for the government since the black market will grow to accommodate new demand.
Restricted Access to Vaping
But the worst consequence of Northam’s law will be making it harder for current smokers to access life-saving vaping technology. Receiving nicotine from a vape rather than a cigarette allows smokers to satiate their cravings without exposure to the tar, toxins, and carcinogens produced by burning tobacco. Denying legal access to vaping will either remove incentives for young smokers to quit or push smokers and vapers onto potentially dangerous, unregulated products sold online.
Vaping isn’t completely safe, but compared to smoking, it’s a much better option. The UK Royal College of Physicians conservatively estimates that it is at least 95 percent less harmful than smoking—and likely to be even less harmful. It makes no sense to restrict the sale of nicotine vapes to adult smokers trying to make responsible decisions about their own health.Medical authorities around the world recognize vaping’s value as a quit-smoking strategy that adds decades to the lives of smokers who transition.
It makes no sense, then, to restrict the sale of nicotine vapes or juices to adult smokers trying to make responsible decisions about their own health when other nicotine-infused, less effective quitting aids like patches and gums are available to adults.
Dire implications aside, raising the legal smoking age amounts to little more than a condescending excuse to intrude into the decisions of adults that primarily affect just themselves. But that won’t stop politicians like Northam from finding any excuse to pat themselves on the back for appearing to be tough on smoking.