Last week, a new California smoking law went into effect, raising the legal smoking age to 21. With this law, California became the second state to set an age limit of 21 to purchase tobacco, joining Hawaii and more than 100 cities.
Although some dispute the effectiveness of the new law, with one Los Angeles Times op-ed saying it won’t help teens, and the Daily Bruin deeming it ineffective, multiple studies have indicated that raising the age requirement could drastically reduce the percentage of smokers.
21 is a key age — more than just curbing smoking for 18- to 21-year-olds, it could also limit underage smoking, since a 2001 study found that friends are the leading source of cigarettes for teen smokers across all grades. While it’s common for 18-year-olds — high school seniors — to be in the same social circles as adolescents, making it easy for children to obtain legally-bought cigarettes, 21-year-olds are typically either in college or working. Cutting off underage smoking is especially important because almost 90 percent of cigarette smokers first try smoking by age 18, according to the Center for Disease Control, and that addiction can follow them for the rest of their lives.
Based on the impact of delaying smoking initiation, the Institute of Medicine released a report last year predicting that raising the age limit to 21 would prevent approximately 223,000 premature deaths for people born between 2000 and 2019. The study found that it would also decrease adult smoking prevalence by 12 percent.
However, the promise of health benefits doesn’t justify raising the minimum smoking age past 18. Although the plea to “think of the children” is powerful, that’s not enough of a reason to interfere with the autonomy of adults. In the United States, 18 is the age when children enter adulthood, with all the rights and responsibilities that confers.
Though proponents of the age limit point to recent research showing that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until 25, the law clearly considers them ready to take care of themselves much earlier.
At 18, people are entrusted with all kinds of serious, life-changing decisions. They can choose their career path, choose who to vote for and even choose to lay down their lives for their country. That’s just how our society’s set up, which makes sense — once high school ends, most people will be living on their own, paying taxes and either going to college or holding down full-time jobs. In short, they’re expected to be fully independent adults capable of making their own way in the world, for better or worse.
The law’s exemption for active military personnel misses the point. It was added after other legislators criticized the bill for deeming 18-year-olds old enough to join the army but not to smoke. However, it’s nonsensical to think that 18-year-olds in military service are more ready to smoke than other 18-year-olds. The importance of adulthood isn’t to join the military — it’s the choice of whether to join the military. It’s clear that this exemption was aimed more at pandering for votes than at seriously considering the capabilities of young adults.
The new smoking age limit is one of the only age requirements that restricts people over 18. Others, like the age requirements for drinking or buying a gun, are intended to protect the community from drunk drivers and the effects of gun violence — not the users themselves. But there are already many laws in place to protect people from secondhand smoke. Raising the age limit to 21 isn’t intended to help nonsmokers — it’s meant to shield potential smokers from themselves, something with little to no precedent.
This law also separates itself from previous anti-smoking legislation aimed at lowering smoking rates. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Congress passed several laws to regulate cigarette advertising, especially to young adults, and added Surgeon General warnings to all packaging and advertisements. Now, the dangers of smoking are widely known.
Unlike that era, when the health effects of smoking were still controversial, and tobacco companies could appeal to kids with cartoons and celebrity endorsements, everyone who picks up a pack of cigarettes today can see the consequences of smoking emblazoned on the side of the box. These laws have made it possible for people to make informed choices about smoking — now it’s time for the government to step back and let them make that choice.