Thursday, April 25, 2013

To NYC: Don't Raise the Smoking Age

You are probably wondering and scratching your head as to why Twenty-One Debunked, an organization founded for the purpose of lowering the drinking age to 18, would care even one iota about tobacco policy and the rights of smokers.  After all, we have repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of banning 18-20 year old legal adults from drinking alcohol while simultaneously allowing them to (among other things) consume a far more toxic substance.  However, the answer is contained in the question itself--for many of the same reasons that the drinking age should lowered to 18, so should the smoking age remain 18.

New York City is currently proposing to raise the age limit for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21, and Mayor Bloomberg is now in favor of such a change despite originally being against it.  If it passes, NYC would join two other towns (in Massachusetts) and the nation of Sri Lanka as the few places in the entire world where no one under 21 is allowed to buy cigarettes.  Proponents claim that it would dramatically reduce smoking rates among young people:  one study estimates that raising the age limit to 21 would reduce smoking among 18-20 year olds by 55% and among 14-17 year olds by nearly two-thirds within seven years, and that in turn would lead to lower rates of adult smoking over the long run, thereby saving countless lives and improving public health. 

However, there are good reasons to doubt the results of the study.  First of all, the study is purely theoretical without any empirical data on places that have actually raised the age limit to 21 in real life.  Secondly, one need look no further than the drinking age to see that such impressive results would be highly unlikely.  For example, Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) found that, after adjustment for confounders, raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 merely reduced self-reported past-month drinking among high school seniors by five percentage points and self-reported "binge" drinking by three percentage points.  Using 1980 as a base year, when the rates of these behaviors were 70% and 40%, respectively, these numbers represent declines of roughly 7%, far less than what the above study claims would happen for smoking and small enough to be mostly or even entirely due to reporting bias.  And the NSDUH found that the average age of onset of drinking actually dropped from 16.6 to 16.2 between 1980 and 2002.  If that's "success," we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

Thus, it is far from obvious that raising the age limit for tobacco would yield any substantive public health benefits.  The most likely result would be the creation of even more technical criminals, and the expansion of the city's existing black market for untaxed/low-tax/counterfeit/stolen cigarettes and fake IDs, with the primary beneficiaries being organized crime syndicates and even terrorists.  Further erosion of respect for the law would occur as well, along with possible riots.  And why the sudden desire to raise the age limit now?  Cigarette use among young people is now at a record low in both NYC and the rest of the nation, and the massive decline in youth smoking since the 1970s occurred without raising the smoking age.  If NYC is so gung-ho about further reducing smoking among the mere 8.5% of its high school students who are still foolish enough to smoke, perhaps they should better enforce existing laws before they even think of passing new ones.

More fundamentally, raising the smoking age to 21 would be (like the 21 drinking age) a serious violation of the civil rights of 18-20 year olds, who are legal adults in virtually all other aspects of life.  It is also yet another blow to everyone's freedom from the hectoring "public health" fascism of the creeping nanny state that Mayor Bloomberg exemplifies.  Both Twenty-One Debunked and the True Spirit of America Party believe that, while smoking is a stupid and filthy habit that we strongly discourage, the fact remains that 18-20 year olds are adults and if they want to choose pleasure over longevity that should be their choice, not the government's.  We believe that, in a free society, all adults should be free to do as they please as long as they do not harm or endanger nonconsenting others more than the minimum, Darwin Awards notwithstanding.  And before anyone brings out the tired, old canard about "social costs", remember the studies show that smokers actually save society money (on balance) by dying earlier than nonsmokers, and thus they more than pay their way as far as taxes go, even in many of the low-tax states.  (Unfortunately, one cannot say the same for drinkers, but that can be solved by simply raising the tax on alcoholic beverages.)  Thus, Twenty-One Debunked simply cannot tolerate raising the smoking age to any age higher than the age of majority, even if it did improve public health.

The answer is clear.  Old enough to fight and vote = old enough to drink and smoke.  'Nuff said.


  1. I consider New York City to be an oppressive city because its police department stops people due to ethnicity and race. The Mayor has done nothing about it. In addition, Michael Bloomberg is following age discrimination to its limits. The smoking age should be 18 in every state and territory of the United States, regardless of the age of majority. I condemn the tobacco purchasing ages of the two towns in Massachusetts. I'm a liberal but 'oppressive liberalism' is something I have nothing but contempt for. Since the 1970s, smoking among young people has decreased significantly so elected officials like Michael Bloomberg need to look at the numbers and respect the rights and privileges of young women and young men. This is an important article.

    1. That's right. Mayor Bloomberg has become every bit as oppressive as Giuliani, if not more so. And Quinn does not seem like she'd really be any better. Honestly, I never thought I'd miss Rudy.

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