Tobacco prohibition is now considered a key policy goal in the war on smoking, according to one of the country’s leading public health groups.
The American Lung Association’s annual State of Tobacco Control report released Wednesday evaluates states and the federal government’s performance in cracking down on smoking.
States that increase tobacco taxes, expand smoke-free workplace laws and have other anti-tobacco policies land themselves a high grade and hearty congratulations. Those that stubbornly refuse to hit smokers with higher taxes or restrict where they can puff are relegated to the bottom of the pile.
But this year marks a turning point for the ALA. A new category of success by which all states will be graded has entered the fray: raising the minimum age of sale of tobacco products to 21. In other words, prohibition of cigarettes and other tobacco products for millions of adult Americans.
Unlike tobacco taxes or smoke-free workplace laws, the minimum age of sale has a far bigger social implication. The ALA’s recommended policy effectively attempts to extend the age at which Americans are considered children up to the age of 21.
Few would dispute that those who can serve in war, serve on a jury, vote, join the police, legally engage in sexual activity, and be treated as an adult in a court of law are, in fact, adults. We assume those aged 18 and above are mature enough to carry these freedoms and responsibilities. But according to the ALA, it is perfectly permissible to take away the rights and freedoms of adults under the age of 21 in the name of banishing the demon weed of tobacco.
If the ALA had its way, veterans who served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan would be told they are responsible enough to risk dying for their country on the battlefield but are incapable of weighing the trade-offs posed by smoking a Marlboro Light.
The ALA’s new category is not just an insult to adult Americans who deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else, but it is a policy solution desperately in search of a problem.
Fortunately for the ALA, the smoking rate is already plummeting, especially among young people. Cigarette smoking among high school students is at its lowest level in 24 years and the trend shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
This is particularly encouraging as the vast majority of smokers, up to 90 percent according to the Surgeon General, start smoking before the age of 18. Almost 100 percent of smokers start before the age of 26, which surely begs the question, why not raise the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 26?
The obvious reason is the ALA know that arguing for a minimum tobacco age of 26 would rightly be ridiculed as absurdly draconian. A smoking age of 21, however, appears to be a more realistic aim now that Hawaii and California already committed to prohibition for the under-21s.
Raising the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 21 throws up a host of other problems. For example, the black market would expand to cater to smokers who now could not purchase products legally. There would also be a bigger burden on law enforcement, who must ensure retailers are sticking to the rules.
The fundamental problem with the ALA’s prohibitionist position, however, is not with unintended consequences but with the attempt to redefine the idea of what it means to be an adult citizen with both freedoms and responsibilities.
Because many adults exercise their freedom in a way that public health campaigners disapprove of, it does not change the simple fact that they’re adults and should be treated as such.
Guy Bentley is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a consumer freedom research associate at the Reason Foundation and was previously a reporter for the Daily Caller.