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.