When New York City officials floated their we-know-what's-good-for-you proposal to hike the age at which people can legally purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21, their assumption was that people would then actually start smoking at a later age than they do now. But the evidence from drinking age laws doesn't support this assumption. In fact, Americans are now starting to drink at a younger age than they were before the federal government mandated everybody's 21st birthday as the legal gateway to bust-free booze consumption.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "In 2003, the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 1/2 in 1965." The age is up by a few months (PDF) from its status twenty years ago, but it's down by over three years from where it was before controlling access to alcohol became such a big policy priority.
Back in the 1960s, states set their own drinking ages without federal strong-arming, and the result was a range from 18 to 21, enforced with varying degrees of severity or disinterest, depending on local conditions. Ages in many states dipped during the 1970s, when it became clear that politicians considered teenagers trustworthy enough to handle M-16s. But the National Minimum Drinking Age Act ended the fun in 1984, denying a percentage of highway funds to states that refused to hike their drinking ages to a uniform 21.
Enforcement was stepped up, too, from the "if you can reach the bar" standard that I remember prevailing in New York around 1980, to the ultraviolet lights and magnetic scanners intended to detect fake IDs that Boston watering holes were strongly encouraged to install in the 1990s. Since then, we've seen a technological arms race between booze-law enforcers and fake ID vendors that has become fodder for both comic movies and news stories.
And, as mentioned, despite alcohol restrictions becoming a national priority, the average age at which people have their first drink has dropped by over three years.
Is there any good reason to expect a different result from hiking the legal age to buy cigarettes?
Don't miss Reason TV's video documenting young New Yorkers' reactions to the smoking age proposal: