At the age of 18, you are treated as an adult by the state of California. You can vote, drive, buy a lottery ticket and be held accountable for your actions in a court of law. But soon, you won’t be able to buy a pack of cigarettes.
The California State Legislature passed a package of laws Thursday that would raise the smoking age to 21 and add other restrictions, such as applying all tobacco legislation to electronic cigarettes. The bills are currently awaiting approval by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The increase in smoking age comes at the expense of individuals’ freedom, but does not provide enough hope for improvement in public health to justify the cost. As such, Brown should veto the bills.
Raising the smoking age to 21 undercuts 18-year-olds’ civil liberties. The state would be better off treating adults as such by providing more assistance to those who want to quit, rather than inhibiting their right to choose.
That isn’t to say the bills don’t pose great intentions.
There are potential health benefits of the provision: Proponents argue that raising the age will cut smoking initiation rates, especially among those who are under 18, by curbing tobacco use among older members of their social networks.
No one can argue that less people smoking is bad for the society, but the proponents of the law may be gravely overstating its potential effectiveness.
One of the best domestic examples is the Synar Amendment, passed in 1992, that set the federal smoking age to 18. This measure, however, preceded an increase in teenage smoking rate to near all-time peak during the late ’90s, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health.
There are other examples around the world, as well. In France, the smoking rate among 16 and 17-year-olds has gone up since the increase in smoking age to 18 in 2009, according to the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction.
Though proponents of raising the age in California point to studies that say the smoking initiation rate will decrease because of the legislation, the real-world examples show that there is no guarantee as to how effective this measure will be.
Moreover, it’s altogether unclear that such intrusive legislation is needed. Even without the ban, the state has seen a significant decrease in the rate of teenage smokers, going from 21.6 percent in 2000 to 10.5 percent in 2012, according to California Department of Public Health. The smoking rate among adults, nationally, is at an all-time low, and is expected to decrease further.
What has led to the decrease is a combination of awareness campaigns and provisions that banned smoking in various public spaces. Tobacco has became more stigmatized and more people have become aware of the health risks it poses.
With smoking rates already so low and decreasing, it is unnecessary to pass such aggressive restrictions on choice.
Promoting public health is a worthy task, but the paramount goal of any law should be to do so while sacrificing the least amount of civil liberty as possible. It is this latter requirement that California seems to have forgotten.