With the recent passing of a $1.4 trillion spending package into law, the Federal government raised the national legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. Why are adults not allowed to make adult decisions? This is yet another example of the government doing more to create Libertarians than any Libertarian could ever do.
Beginning in the summer of 2020, it will be a violation of federal law to sell tobacco to any person under the age of 21. Currently, and since the 1990s, federal law mandated the legal age to purchase tobacco be at least 18. The new law also includes e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges, not just traditional tobacco products, adding regulation to an industry that has seen little to no government interference.
First, we need to ask, “Why was tobacco language included in a domestic spending bill?” The answer is because this law would not pass on its own. So, they slip it into a spending bill hoping no one notices until the last minute. If constituents complain, legislators can simply say they could not shut down the government for tobacco and vaping products. But the issue is not about the products; it is about the rights of adults.
Consequently, the bigger question is, “When does a person become an adult, able to make decisions for themselves?” At the age of 18, society considers a person an adult. You can join the military and die in a foreign war. You can sign contracts and place yourself in a lifetime of debt. If you commit a crime, you will be tried as an adult and, if found guilty, will receive adult consequences.
Additionally, in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution lowered the minimum voting age in the United States from 21 to 18. So, at 18, the government believes you have enough maturity to choose the next President of the United States. Add to that, today, we have Democratic presidential candidates open to the idea of lowing the voting age to 16.
We can all agree that smoking is bad, but 18-year-olds should be allowed to smoke. There is little doubt that raising the legal age will reduce the number of premature deaths from smoking-related illnesses. Regardless, we need to consider a number of important issues:
1. Is it the government’s responsibility to prevent adults from making bad choices?
Sure, the government can prevent an adult 18-year-old from legally buying tobacco and vaping products, but can they also stop that person from consuming too much sugar? Can the government compel you to eat sufficient quantities of vegetables or engage in an hour of physical exercise daily?
Economically, unhealthy choices will eventually lead to higher medical costs. But, in a free society, we tend to look to the free market to deal with these issues. For example, many health insurance companies already charge smokers higher premiums, forcing them to cover their own increased medical costs.
2) Is it appropriate for the government to restrict the freedom of adults because of minors who may be tempted?
It is generally undisputed that those who avoid tobacco in their youth are far less likely to pick up the habit later in life. Still, the law recognizes the age of majority as 18. After this point, a person is regarded as an adult who can vote, sign binding contracts, give consent for major surgery, join the military, and get married.
If an 18-year-old can decide to assume the risks of major surgery, they should also be able to decide to assume the risks of smoking. We can restrict the sale of tobacco to minors without punishing adults and restricting their freedoms. Children should not have veto power over the rights of adults.
3) Who owns you? Do you own yourself or are you the property of the state?
This should not even be a question in a supposed free country. Do you own yourself or are you the property of the state? The political Left has long defended abortion with the slogan, “Our bodies, our choice”. This idea of self-ownership and bodily autonomy should apply to other life choices, such as smoking, alcohol, recreational marijuana… even fast food and sugary soft drinks. It all comes down to the broader concept of individual rights.
Self-ownership and individual autonomy are concepts expressed as the natural rights of a person to have bodily integrity and individual sovereignty, to be the exclusive controller of your own body and life. In other words, we get to choose our life path. Many of us assume self-ownership to be self-evident but, for many decades, politicians on both the Left and the Right have worked hard to diminish this fundamental right.
No matter what you think of smoking personally, as Americans, we must respect and defend the right of every adult to make decisions for themselves. Your life is yours to live, not some government bureaucrat or regulator. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.