Op-Eds

Smoking, Age and the Freedom to Choose

“Sorry, you’re not old enough.”

We’ve heard this dreaded phrase our entire lives. It starts out innocent enough. First you don’t meet the height requirements for the big kid roller coaster at the amusement park. Then you can’t get into a rated R movie without your Mom tagging along.

Then you’re 18, an adult, even though your maturity may suggest otherwise. You can enlist in the military, buy a lotto ticket, vote and get a tattoo — among other rites of passage. Still, you have to wait until you’re 21 to buy alcohol and soon enough tobacco.

The New York City Council voted to raise the tobacco buying age from 18 to 21 at the end of October. This act includes cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. The Bloomberg administration believes the legislation will deter young people from eventually becoming addicted to such products.

It appears that the council doesn’t have a clear understanding of the teenage psyche. The more you tell a young person no, the more appealing the act will be.

Look at Prohibition. In 1920, the United States government banned the sale, production, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Did that stop people from doing all of the above? Of course not. If anything the idea of partaking in a forbidden act made it all the more alluring. Even today, Prohibition is associated with the rebellious glamour of speakeasies. The dry movement had no effect in deterring Americans from what they wanted to do.

It is not to say that the government does not have good intentions with this act. It is no secret that smoking is a prevalent health hazard. According to the American Lung Association, smoking-related diseases claim over 393,000 American lives each year.

“Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, and is a main cause of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — including chronic bronchitis and emphysema,” their website states.

Neighboring Naussau and Suffolk counties increased the smoking age to from 18 to 19 in 2006 and 2005 respectively. Yet, it is easy to spot teens smoking all over Long Island. I’ve known many people personally — underage — who were able to buy a pack easily.

There is hardly a person in this country that is not aware of the fact that smoking is bad for you. Even so, smokers will continue to smoke unless they reach a personal desire to quit. That being said, smokers under 21 will find a way to continue their habit whether the government agrees or disagrees.

This puts 18-20 year olds in a peculiar position. By law, they were able to purchase tobacco from the time they turned 18, but in six months when the bill will be in full effect they lose this right.

The same case occurred in 1971 with the passing of the 26th Amendment. The legal drinking age rose to 21 from 18. Do people under 21 still buy and consume alcohol? Absolutely. Are alcohol related injuries and fatalities still on the rise? Unfortunately, yes.

Laws have the ability to change. That’s why we have amendments. The question here is whether restriction will actually affect the development of new smokers. History tells us no. The disposition of young people tells us no. Still, the New York City Council believes they have found success. I look for patterns. I look at history. And I certainly do not foresee success. I see pretentious lawmaking.

Although I do not have an answer to how we can encourage our fellow Americans to stop using tobacco, I think we must put some faith in our innate ability as humans to make choices. Maybe they will make the right ones, maybe they won’t, but what matters is that they will be making the choice for themselves.

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