When it comes to government officials promoting public health, voters have always preferred a subtle nudge to a heavy hand. Just ask New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose hamfisted attempt to ban large sodas was shot down in March amid widespread jeers.
Cigarettes, however, are so addictive and unhealthy that it’s appropriate to consider more-aggressive measures to prevent their use. Even so, anti-smoking laws that are seen as overly strict will provoke backlash from smoking-rights advocates, as the outcry over New York state’s 2003 workplace smoking ban demonstrated.
Smokers deserve respect, but their rights must be balanced with the reality of a deadly product whose effects harm society as a whole, not just smokers. Smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control, results in $96 billion in health care expenditures each year nationwide. That’s why recent proposals in the New York Legislature and New Jersey to raise the smoking age to 21 deserve consideration.
State Sen. Diane Savino, who lost both parents and a grandfather to lung cancer, introduced the bill last month.
“If I could prevent one kid from ever developing that habit, this legislation is worth it,” she said.
One point frequently raised to defend smoking at age 18 is that 18-year-olds can fight and die in the U.S. military. But logically, this is a non-sequitur; military service and smoking have hardly anything in common. Legal smoking at 18, like legal drinking at 21, is not a constitutionally guaranteed right; it’s an arbitrary age limit set by legislators making subjective determinations about what’s best for public health.
And there’s reason to believe that hiking the smoking age to 21 would improve public health by cutting down on the number of teens who start smoking. As long as 18-year-olds can buy cigarettes, senior classes at high schools around the country are filled with kids old enough to buy smokes for their peers.