As thoroughly awful as everyone knows cigarettes to be— still the No. 1 cause of premature death in this country— public officials walk a blurry line when they try to reduce the terrible toll caused by smoking.
High tobacco taxes, critics say, unfairly punishes smokers, who are disproportionately low income. Banning advertising of a legal product raises free-speech issues and can tobacco companies really be forced to put large graphic warnings on their own products to discourage customers from buying them? Do any of these ideas yield the results promised? Does this type of oversight really change people’s behaviors?
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was successful in getting trans-fats removed from restaurant menus and last year proposed doing away with large soda purchases to protect citizens from excessive sugar intake, thus causing an alarming obesity rate in the city. However noble the goals of controlling the bad habits of others, these laws are grossly overreaching and should be defeated at every turn.
Now, the New York City Council, backed by Mayor Bloomberg, is considering another tactic: making it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to buy cigarettes. Currently, anyone 18 or over can buy a pack. The new proposal would, at least theoretically, make cigarettes difficult to obtain by those who are most vulnerable to peer pressure and tobacco marketing. Prevention makes sense because smoking is so addictive that more than 85 percent of those who try to quit relapse.
Yet, the good intentions are outweighed by the proposal's problems. For one thing, it's practically doomed to have minimal effect. A 20-minute bus ride will transport any Bronx resident to neighboring Yonkers, where 18-year-olds would still be allowed to buy as many cartons as they wanted. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, nearly 90 percent of smokers take up the habit before the age of 18, apparently unfazed by the existing rules barring stores from selling to them.
Beyond the practical considerations, government leaders should think twice about taking away the right of adults to buy a legal, but dangerous products like cigarettes, which, includes 18-year-olds who are adults who are allowed to sign legally binding contracts, to vote, to go to war and to seek and obtain a doctor's prescription for Oxycotin. True, the legal drinking age is 21 in every state but that is justified by the fact that an 18-year-old's dumb decision to drink may harm others. A decision to smoke harms only the smoker.
More than 1,200 people die from smoking-related diseases each day in this country. By all means, there should be more education about the dangers of smoking, more bans on where people may smoke, more advertising to counter the tobacco industry's marketing. At the end of the day this proposal is less about smoking and more about individual freedoms. Adults should retain the right to make most decisions that affect only themselves— even very bad decisions!