In a characteristically paternal fashion, late last month, the New York City Council raised the minimum age to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products. To purchase a pack or even an electronic cigarette, consumers must now be 21 years of age. The justification provided by the City Council rests on the claim that by making the purchase of tobacco nominally more difficult, fewer young people will start smoking in the first place. The data suggests the move might be effective, just like stop-and-frisk. Still, there is a fine line between maintaining public health and trampling on the individual rights of Americans, and the Bloomberg administration has again chosen to jump right across it.
Why 21? Culturally, the age carries significance as the start of more privileged adulthood. Although the bar is set at 18 to vote or join the military, the three additional years are somehow necessary to develop the maturity to make informed decisions about intoxication. The merit here is questionable as well, but what is evident is that by setting the same age for the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes, there is an implication that the two are comparably problematic in terms of public health. I won’t make any ludicrous claims about the healthfulness of smoking; tobacco is dangerous for both the smoker and anyone in her immediate vicinity. In such terms, smoking bans in public places certainly make sense. But smoking in private areas carries no potential harm for anyone else. It is something that folks probably shouldn’t do, but adults should ultimately be able to make their own decisions.
Today, every American knows the dangers of smoking. Personally, I have seen more public service announcements demonizing the act and commercials for smoking-cessation treatments than cigarette ads. That some choose still to smoke is not therefore a demonstration of ignorance; rather, it is an informed choice that weights the benefits of tobacco use above the health consequences. Viewed objectively, the choice to smoke is quite silly, as is joining the military as an infantryman or voting for some politicians. We as American adults are entitled, however, to make personal decisions according to our own elective calculus. Self-determination is a fundamental right and should not be impugned. If I as an 18-year-old choose to smoke in the privacy of my own living space, there is zero potential for greater societal harm of the sort introduced by alcohol use. To draw parallels between the two and regulate their sale equally is therefore inappropriate.
Smoking is a bad habit. But as Americans, do we not have the right to make bad choices? I am a legal adult, capable of buying a gun or being sentenced to life imprisonment. To claim that I lack the maturity to make a well-informed decision on tobacco usage is thus insulting to my dignity as a citizen. I am an adult and will smoke if I want to. Restricting my ability to purchase cigarettes isn’t a matter of public health; it is a matter of unjustified government interference.