Raising the Smoking Age Is a Dumb Way to Address Teen Smoking When So Many Teens Are Already Ignoring the Law


In Minnesota many local governments are joining a national trend toward raising the age for tobacco use to 21. In North Dakota, as the Fargo Forum reported over the weekend, that trend hasn’t found footing.

That’s something the Forum would like to change, advocating for the age-21 tobacco prohibition in an editorial.

There are a lot of things wrong with this argument, not the least of which is lumping vaping or e-cigarettes in with overall tobacco use. While it’s true vaping rates nationally, including among kids, is on the rise there has been a corresponding decline in smoking. While vaping isn’t good for you, and while most of us can agree that kids under 18 probably shouldn’t be vaping at all, can we at least acknowledge that more vaping and less smoking is a net gain for public health?

Carrying on as though vaping were an activity equivalent, in its impact on health, to cigarette smoking is just plain ignorant.

They aren’t the same thing.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]We’re going to save law by expecting 18 – 21 year olds to obey a law that a large faction of minors ignore? That sounds a bit like expecting mass shooters to respect gun free zones.[/mks_pullquote]

But back to the age-21 restriction, why do we think it would have anything more than a marginal impact on teen smoking?

Under-18 tobacco use has been illegal for generations now, yet for the most part kids who want to smoke find a way to start the habit. The law is little barrier. That’s even more true with vaping, which is easier for most kids to pull off given that it doesn’t leave your clothing and surroundings imbued with the telltale stench of burned tobacco.

We’ve never been particularly good at stopping middle school and high school aged kids from smoking or vaping – declines in youth smoking have coincided with declines in legal smoking – so why would we think we could do any better lumping 18, 19 and 20 year olds in with them?

Speaking of which, why do we want to treat 18, 19 and 20 year olds like middle schoolers? They are adults. If they want to vape they should be able to vape. Because adults should be allowed to make adult decisions.

They can fight and die in the military. They can exercise their voting franchise. They can enter into contracts and employment without the restrictions we put on minors. But they can’t be trusted to make a decision about vaping?

What’s ironic about this are the arguments driving the calls for an age-21 law.

“Alarmingly, youth tobacco use in Minnesota has risen for the first time in 17 years,” the Forum opines.

Youth tobacco use. Which is to say tobacco use that is already illegal. The Forum states that “95 percent of addicted adult smokers started before age 21” and then leaps to this conclusion: “Raising the tobacco sale age to 21 will reduce youth smoking and save lives.”

We’re going to save law by expecting adults age 18 – 21 to obey a law that a large faction of kids ignore?

That sounds a bit like expecting mass shooters to respect gun free zones.

How about we get serious?

An age 21 law would be great for bureaucrats. If implemented all of the law enforcement and public health officials who are employed to enforce that sort of policy could rest easy with some additional job security.

We should recoil from public policy that is proliferated for the benefit of bureaucrats as opposed to effectively achieving the stated goal of that policy. In this instance, public health.

The most effective way to combat unhealthy choices is education and social pressure. Kids who know the health risks from smoking (or vaping, for that matter) are less likely to do it. Parents who are vigilant, friends who aren’t afraid to speak up about unhealthy choices, are more effective in stopping smoking/vaping than government bans will ever be.

Of course, we don’t need so many bureaucrats for those sort of solutions.