Smoking Ban if You’re Under 21: the Case Against New York City’s Ban

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Save lives.  Raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.  Discourage young people from smoking.  Who could be opposed to that?

But there are strong arguments against the  new law approved by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Banning 18 – 20 year olds from legally buying cigarettes really is arguably a double standard.

It’s easy to see this as another example of treating this age group as adults-on-training-wheels. They can drive a car,  vote, and go to war, but buying cigarettes or booze is verboten.

What New York is saying to its young citizens is that while it’s OK for under 21’s to protect us,  or be responsible enough to get behind the wheel, they must also be protected against themselves.

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This city is already plastered with warnings about the evils of tobacco.  Stores are prohibited from prominently displaying packs of cigarettes at the front of the counter.

Not long ago, it became illegal to smoke in city parks.  And yet many kids still smoke.

sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park - partial list

Sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park – partial list of no-no’s

The City Council voted for the new restriction by a decisive margin, 35-10. New York Mayor said  “this is an issue of whether we are going to kill people.”  Well, actually smokers tend to kill themselves, but never mind.

Bloomberg correctly pointed out that people who raise the economic argument “really ought to look in the mirror and be ashamed.”  But about the freedom argument, Mr. Mayor? And won’t this ban increase law-breaking with young people buying cigarettes illegally?

While the health argument may be a no-brainer for many well-intentioned politicians it’s almost certainly more controversial among the public at large. “It’s a dumb law,” says one post on debate.org.  “If you can fight for your country why can’t you enjoy tobacco?”

“I am in high school,” wrote another contributor.   “As a student you can see that people that want to smoke will find ways to buy or get the tobacco from.”

The arguments in favor of raising the legal smoking are well rehearsed.  New York City officials say 80% of smokers here started before they were 21.  Tobacco kills far more people than alcohal or drugs.

“Teens are likely to get cigarettes from other teens, so by raising the sales age we fully expect that we’re gonna see a decline in smoking in teenagers, which is what we want most,” says New York City’s somewhat ominously titled Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Tom Farley.

“Tobacco is a drug, and it’s a drug that kills more people that heroine, cocaine, crack, crystal meth combined,” argues Farley with considerable conviction.

As a parent I know his arguments carry weight.  And I admit that I once opposed New York’s ban on smoking in bars as a restriction that went too far.  Later I changed my mind.

But this new ban is open to complaints about a  nanny state.  Shouldn’t college-aged young adults be free to make their own mistakes?  What do you think?  If I am wrong again, Change My Mind!

all photos by Richard Davies

all photos by Richard Davies

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