The libertarian in me tends to err on the side of individual choice when it comes to matters involving one's own body, be it the choice to be parents (or not) or to get one of those hideous neck tattoos.
There are surely some caveats; if one's personally destructive behavior becomes damaging to the public at large (such as the effect illegal drug use can have on both the health care system and overall crime), there are reasonable justifications for controlling it. But when it comes to the bone-headed choice of poisoning oneself, I say, knock yourself out. This is America, and we all have the right to be boneheads as long as we don't hurt anyone else doing it.
And yet New York City's movement to raise the age to buy tobacco to 21 seems a sensible exception to the bonehead-freedom concept. How is it that someone needs to be 21 to drink alcohol – an activity which can be damaging but is not inherently dangerous in moderation – while young people 18 years old can buy cigarettes, which are dangerous in any amount?
People can sign up for military service or even be drafted into war at age 18. Even more astonishingly, people can get married mid-way through high school with their parents' permission. Marriage is a far bigger commitment (or should be) than drinking or smoking. If anything, we ought to consider raising the marriage age to 21. That's probably unfair to young lovers who can't imagine life without each other (at least, not until they get divorced at 22). But is making people wait until they are 21 to buy tobacco unfair?
It's a tough question, because it does seem arbitrary. If tobacco is legal, people old enough to get married, vote and go to war ought to be able to have the judgment to decide for themselves whether to smoke. And yet, there is a compelling public health argument for raising the age for tobacco purchases.
Tobacco is not just a habit, as I was taught in 7th grade, but an addiction. (Though I give my junior high school props for delivering such an effective and relentless anti-smoking education that virtually none of my classmates took it up – at least not until after high school.) I have friends who stopped smoking decades ago and tell me that, still, not a day goes by that they don't want a cigarette.
This isn't weakness – it's merely a human reaction to an addictive substance. The answer is to never start smoking to begin with. Catching young adults – those who still don't really believe they will ever die, all evidence to the contrary – is one way to reduce the number of smokers. That's helpful to all of us, since smoking-related illnesses put a strain on the health care system. We have a right to be foolish and self-destructive. But the state has an interest in at least discouraging such behavior.
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