Art by Peau Porotesano
This is a part of a pro/con series. For the other side of the argument, click here.
The legal age to purchase cigarettes was raised from 18 to 21 in the state of California since May 4, according to Patrick McGreevy’s article, “California Smoking Age Raised,” published May 4 by the Los Angeles Times. California is only one of two states to hold this distinction, Hawaii being the other. New Jersey, Utah and Alabama each set their tobacco purchasing ages at 19, while all other states grant the right to citizens 18 or older.
This bill sets an arbitrary and potentially dangerous precedent for the role of the state. American citizens legally become adults once they reach 18 years of age. With this adulthood comes greater responsibility, and more freedoms. The gradation of legal freedoms after the age of adulthood devalues the legal definition of adulthood and sets a precedent for allowing the state to restrict rights from adults.
Obviously, there are legitimate concerns that lead some to favor raising the smoking age. Long-term tobacco smoking has been directly linked to various forms of cancer. Some, looking for a precedent at capping substance use at 21, may also point to National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.
There is no disputing the fact that tobacco smoking is a health hazard; the question at hand is whether raising the purchasing age to 21 has any measurable effect on smoking trends, especially on younger adults. In fact “there is virtually no systematic research showing that increasing the smoking age prevents a teen from picking up the habit” of smoking, according to Miles Males’ article, “Why a ‘smoking age of 21 is a bad idea,” published March 11 by the Los Angeles Times. After a crackdown on the sale of tobacco to minors in Massachusetts in the 1990s, Males writes, there was “no effect on the ability of teens to get cigarettes and no reduction in the prevalence of smoking.”
Even assuming such legislation could somehow reduce young adults’ access to tobacco, it’s unclear why 21 is the designated age. If the bill is meant to protect developing brains from threats, then 25 would be a much more suitable age. “The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until he or she is 25 years old or so,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Health Encyclopedia.
If the state has the authority to reduce adult access to tobacco on the grounds of protecting health, there is no real barrier for taking similar measures with other products which have quantifiable negative effects on health. Sugary drinks, hydrogenated oils, and other food products are widely available while being linked to various health concerns.
From a legal and political perspective, there is a lot at stake in this redirection of responsibility. Under current legislation, adults are, among other things, able to vote, serve in the military, work full time and consent to sex, according to the LawDictionary.org. If the state trusts individuals’ judgments regarding politics and sex and allows them the chance to potentially die in military service of their country, there is no reason it should not also recognize the individual’s judgments regarding health.
The legal definition of adulthood in the United States is one which demands heavy responsibilities on the part of the individual. In this light, prohibiting otherwise legal substances to adults for an interim period seems to negate this very responsibility. These temporary bans, by removing legal responsibility from adults, effectively create a new category of “not-quite-adults.”
The political and social rights that accompany adulthood should be granted at once. Legislation raising the smoking age to 21 fails to solve the problem it intends to address while devaluing the legal responsibilities and rights of adults.
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