IN HAWAII and California, the minimum age for buying cigarettes was raised recently to 21. Now Massachusetts lawmakers, addicted to the rush that comes from limiting other people's choices, are keen to jump on the bandwagon.
A bill banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 — and, for good measure, making it a crime to sell cigarettes in drugstores — passed the state Senate by an overwhelming vote last month. The bill is now before a House committee; it could reach the full House for a vote in a matter of days. Soon after the Fourth of July, adults in Massachusetts who smoke or who do business with smokers can expect to have less freedom than they have right now. Happy Independence Day.
You and I and every non-comatose human being knows that smoking is unhealthy. It's a foul habit that can lead to cancer and other deadly diseases. The reason why cigarettes have long been known as "coffin nails" is a mystery to exactly nobody. Americans are inundated with warnings of tobacco's harmfulness, and those warnings are reinforced with stiff taxes. Tens of millions of Americans have kicked the habit; tens of millions more have never taken it up in the first place. Today, smoking is at an all-time low in the United States, down to just 14.9 percent in a Centers for Disease Control survey released in November.
Among teens, smoking is rarer still.
According to the CDC's latest survey of "youth risk behavior" — a massive study involving 16,000 students at 125 schools nationwide — only 10.8 percent of American teenagers have smoked even a single cigarette in the past 30 days. That is by far the lowest rate ever measured, as is the rate (3.4 percent) of high school students who smoke frequently, defined as 20 or more days per month.
Clearly the campaign to make smoking unpopular and uncommon has been a roaring success. Smokers are a dwindling and relatively powerless fraction of the population, frequently ostracized, banned from workplaces and restaurants, and charged ever-higher prices to indulge their habit. So why this new frenzy to raise the tobacco-buying age to 21? Because lawmakers believe it may ultimately keep a few more 18- to 20-year-olds from taking up a bad habit? Does that justify piling on?
We're talking about adults, remember. And about a lawful consumer product. And about a society in which freedom of choice is supposed to be a core value.
Or is free choice a value we cherish only when others make choices we approve of?
Backers of a 21-and-older restriction rationalize it on public-health grounds. "We know it will save lives over time and we know it will help to reduce healthcare costs," insists state Senator Jason Lewis. But if that's a compelling argument for denying young adults the right to buy a pack of Marlboros, isn't it just as compelling an argument for denying them the right to drive a car? Why doesn't Lewis lead a campaign to raise the minimum legal driving age to 21? After all, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among US teens. If antismoking activists really want to "save lives over time" and "reduce healthcare costs," banning anyone under 21 from driving should be a no-brainer.
Why stop there? If 18- to 20-year olds shouldn't be allowed to buy cigarettes, shouldn't they be banned as well from driving, hunting, or enlisting in the military?
While they're at it, legislators should raise the legal age for buying a rifle to 21. And also the minimum age for hunting. And for getting a boating license. And for consenting to sex. And for enlisting in the US military. Like smoking, those are all behaviors associated with risks to health or life. If nobody under 21 can be entrusted with the freedom to buy cigarettes, presumably the freedom to engage in any other potentially hazardous activity ought to be denied as well.
Or perhaps our elected masters could try instead to suppress their urge to treat citizens as sheep, fit only to be led where the government's shepherds direct.
"Please know that I am aware of the hazards," wrote Amelia Earhart to her husband before embarking on her final flight. "I want to do it because I want to do it.
Smokers are aware of tobacco's hazards. They don't need Big Brother to override their consent. Oh, yes, cigarettes are bad for all of us. But they're not nearly as harmful as lawmakers who don't value freedom, and don't know their limits.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --