The same Congress that just passed a deficit-increasing spending package is so worried about the long-term consequences of bad decisions that it has decided to raise the smoking age. The budget deal that passed the House Tuesday contains a provision raising the minimum age to buy nicotine products, like cigarettes and vapes, to 21.
The push to increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products has grown in recent years. In 2016, Hawaii became the first state to raise its smoking age. Since then, 19 states and over 530 local governments have increased their smoking age to 21, according to Tobacco 21, an advocacy group.
The House-passed bill gives the federal government 180 days to write new regulations barring the sale of tobacco to those under 21, plus another 90 days for those new regulations to go into effect. Provided the bill is approved by the Senate and White House, as expected, a 21-year-old smoking age will be the law of the land by summer 2020.
The Washington Post reports that Altria and Reynolds American Inc. have both come out in support of raising the smoking age. Tony Abboud of the Vapor Technology Association told the Post that the move is "most significant step that can be taken to reduce youth access and use."
Compare that to Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who wrote in a press release that, "raising the tobacco age to 21 is a positive step, but it is not a substitute for prohibiting the flavored e-cigarettes that are luring and addicting our kids…Juul and Altria have hijacked the tobacco 21 issue for their own nefarious reasons as a shield to fight efforts to prohibit flavored e-cigarettes."
Only a handful of lonely liberty advocates have been fighting to let adults under 21 keep buying cigarettes if they want.
Libertarian-leaning Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) tweeted about how raising the smoking age will cost $18 million, which includes grant funding for states to perform unannounced inspections of tobacco retailers.
Hardly a peep today about the federal government banning sales of tobacco products to 18,19, and 20 year old adults yesterday.
The cost to implement… $18,580,790 per year. Hey folks, no one said this nanny state was going to be cheap.
Also, random unannounced inspections! pic.twitter.com/OY7GPqGiNf
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) December 18, 2019
The evidence for the efficacy of a 21-and-up policy for nicotine purchases is also pretty thin. An oft-cited example is Needham, Massachusetts, which raised its smoking age to 21 in 2005, and subsequently saw a much greater drop in the teen smoking rate than surrounding towns.
As Michelle Minton, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, pointed out in a November blog post, these extraordinary declines in teen smoking in Needham were temporary. Teen smoking was soon falling faster in neighboring towns that had not adopted a higher smoking age. Indeed between 2012 and 2014, teen smoking in Needham actually increased.
Minton speculates that by cutting those under 21 off from buying e-cigarettes, a proven smoking cessation product, Needham's policy simply encouraged young smokers to stick to illicit but more readily available cigarettes.
In addition to the pragmatic case against raising the smoking age, there's also something to be said for letting adults do what they want as long as they are not harming anyone.
It's a tired but nevertheless true argument that 18 is the start of adulthood, and thus should be the age at which we allow humans in America to make their own decisions. The state allows 18-year-olds to join the military, to sign for loans, to decide where they will live, and to marry. Someone capable of making those choices can also probably decide whether they want to buy a pack of cigarettes or a Juul.