Nearly 18 months after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s infamous proposal to ban large sodas, New York City residents have been confronted with another controversial push for public health. Among other anti-cigarette provisions, the City Council voted to raise the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21, passing the most stringent limits on tobacco purchases of any major American city. Council members argued that the bill, nicknamed Tobacco 21, would curb youth smoking and prevent young residents from developing addictions. If signed by Bloomberg, who has voiced his support for the minimum age requirement, the initiative would take effect six months after his ratification.
Although the aim to reduce underage smoking may be well intended, passing Tobacco 21 would inadvertently infringe on an overage constituency — New Yorkers ages 18 to 20. In many respects — professional, social, judicial and political — American society considers 18- to 20-year-olds to be legal adults, capable of making life-altering decisions and serving life sentences when poor decisions are made. An individual must be 18 to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces, although one may apply with parental consent at age 17. In correlation, the 26th Amendment prohibits the government from denying the right to vote to citizens 18 years of age or older. New York state laws also recognize the autonomy of this age range, mandating that individuals must be 18 to marry, receive tattoos or body piercings. These represent only a few laws that define the adult age as 18.
Given these significant statutes, it is unreasonable to forbid this demographic from exercising the personal freedoms that come conjoined with lawfully authorized responsibility. Considering that 18- to 20-year-olds are deemed fit to elect their leaders, bind themselves to other individuals in matrimony, commit to permanent body art and give their lives for our country, the city legislature’s proposition that they are too immature to assess the health risks of tobacco use seems deeply misguided. As New York City residents debate the effectiveness of raising the minimum smoking age, one effect is almost certain — the muddling of the concept of adulthood.
While some may counter this argument with references to the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 on the condition that states will not receive federal highway funding, it is important to note the distinction between the alcohol-focused and tobacco-centered legislation. The 1984 age increase was an effort to reduce drunk driving, incidents where irresponsible drinking cost lives of innocent individuals. In essence, the act intends to protect civilians from perpetrators of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Conversely, New York City has already enacted legislation to limit secondhand smoke. The provision that bans smoking in restaurants and bars celebrated its 10th anniversary in March.
Although smoking unquestionably causes devastating health effects, this position has little to do with tobacco use itself. It is about personal rights, and the fine line that exists between appropriately addressing a problem and overextending legislative reach. Increasing the tobacco-purchasing age on a constituency that is called on to vote for our leaders and serve in our wars reflects a glaring inconsistency in the way our society and laws define adulthood. Curbing underage people from developing addiction may be a noble end, but the means should not involve infringing on an overage demographic.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 11 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected]