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Smoking and the right to dumb choices

New York's proposal to ban purchases by those under 21 is off-base.

April 24, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Cigarettes await sale at a sidewalk newsstand in New York City. The legal age to buy cigarettes could rise to 21 from 18 in New York City under a proposal officials released this week, making New York the strictest of any major U.S. city on smoking age limits.
Cigarettes await sale at a sidewalk newsstand in New York City. The legal… (John Moore / Getty Images )

As thoroughly awful as everyone knows cigarettes to be — still the No. 1 cause of premature death in this country — public officials walk a blurry line when they try to reduce smoking's terrible toll. As long as they lack the will to ban tobacco altogether, they face all sorts of ethical, legal and political problems in regulating a product that is, after all, perfectly legal.

High tobacco taxes, critics say, unfairly punish smokers, who are disproportionately low income. Banning advertising of a legal product raises free-speech issues. And can tobacco companies really be forced to put large graphic warnings on their own products to discourage customers from buying them? Does that make sense?

Now, the New York City Council, backed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is considering another tactic: making it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to buy cigarettes. Currently, anyone 18 or over can buy a pack.

Bloomberg has taken a lot of ribbing for previous nanny-state proposals involving salt and trans-fats and, especially, for his plan to ban the serving of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces. The new proposal would, at least theoretically, make cigarettes difficult to obtain by those who are most vulnerable to peer pressure and tobacco marketing. Prevention makes sense because smoking is so addictive that more than 85% of those who try to quit relapse.

Yet the good intentions are outweighed by the proposal's problems. For one thing, it's practically doomed to have minimal effect. A 20-minute bus ride will transport any Bronx resident to neighboring Yonkers, where 18-year-olds would still be allowed to buy as many cartons as they wanted. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, nearly 90% of smokers take up the habit before the age of 18 — apparently unfazed by the existing rules barring stores from selling to them.

Beyond the practical considerations, government leaders should think twice about taking away the right of adults to buy a legal, if dangerous, product like cigarettes. And 18-year-olds are adults — allowed to sign legally binding contracts, to vote, to go to war and to seek and obtain a doctor's prescription for Oxycontin. True, the legal drinking age is 21 in every state. But that is justified by the fact that an 18-year-old's dumb decision to drink may harm others. A decision to smoke harms only the smoker.

More than 1,200 people die of smoking-related disease each day in this country. By all means, there should be more education about the dangers of smoking, more bans on where people may smoke, more advertising to counter the tobacco industry's marketing. But adults should retain the right to make most decisions that affect only themselves, even very bad decisions.

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