Bill to Raise Age Limit for Tobacco Misses the Mark
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If 18-year-olds are old enough to fight in a war for our country, why aren’t they old enough to drink alcohol legally? It’s a question that has been asked, mostly by 18-year-olds, for decades. To my mind, it has never received a wholly satisfactory answer. But keeping bartenders from serving teenagers legally at least kept third parties safer from drunk driving.
There’s no such justification for raising the age to buy tobacco products. Yet a bipartisan coalition is gearing up to make it illegal to sell cigarettes and e-cigarettes to people under 21. Senators Brian Schatz and Todd Young, a Hawaii Democrat and an Indiana Republican, recently teamed up to make the case . They inadvertently revealed how weak it is.
Part of the problem is that at no point do they ever concede the premise that adults should generally be allowed to engage in whatever activity they want, regardless of its risks to them: that we should have a presumption, even a rebuttable one, for freedom. The principal drawback to their legislation thus disappears from view.
Their main argument is that most tobacco users take up their habit before age 21, and that making them wait will improve their health. The senators write that “if the current rates of smoking continue, the 5.6 million of today's youth will eventually die from preventable, smoking-related illnesses.”
That projection is based on cigarettes, not e-cigarettes, and so cannot justify legal restrictions on the latter. But in either case, the question remains: Why not let adults decide for themselves what risks to take? And if we’re not going to let 20-year-olds take the health risk of smoking, why should we let people one year older?
Schatz and Young then turn to a fiscal argument: Taxpayers will save money if fewer people smoke. Their argument relies on the cost of smokers’ health care to Medicare and Medicaid, while ignoring the sin taxes that smokers pay and the lower costs their shorter retirements entail. ( have found that smokers save governments money.)
Even if the numbers were solid, though, the government has voluntarily committed to covering those health costs. It can’t justify limiting people’s freedoms on the basis of its choice. Nor can it justify limiting them for an arbitrary subset of adults.
The senators switch back to paternalism: Smokers pay higher health-insurance premiums throughout their lives, and their bill, if it keeps them from taking up the habit, will save them money. Presumably it will also save them the money they spend buying cigarettes and vaping products.
But whether they incur those expenses would seem to be their business, not that of the senators. The estimates are also, again, dodgy, since the higher premiums they’re talking about are for cigarette smokers rather than vapers.
Their final argument: “According to the Indiana Chamber, smokers also take the equivalent of an additional three weeks of vacation per year in the form of smoke breaks.” The Chamber of Commerce has not responded to my query about the evidence for this claim. If employers want to crack down on smoke breaks, though, they can do it themselves, and limit them for employees of all ages.
The senators don’t provide any good reason to treat young adults as though they were minors for the purpose of tobacco purchases. I’ll stick with my starting point: If you’re old enough to vote, serve on a jury, marry or fight in a war, you should be considered old enough to light up, too.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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