Butt out

Raising the minimum smoking age in NYC — yet another unjustified intervention

In a characteristically paternal fashion, late last month, the New York City Council raised the minimum age to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products. To purchase a pack or even an electronic cigarette, consumers must now be 21 years of age. The justification provided by the City Council rests on the claim that by making the purchase of tobacco nominally more difficult, fewer young people will start smoking in the first place. The data suggests the move might be effective, just like stop-and-frisk. Still, there is a fine line between maintaining public health and trampling on the individual rights of Americans, and the Bloomberg administration has again chosen to jump right across it.

Why 21? Culturally, the age carries significance as the start of more privileged adulthood. Although the bar is set at 18 to vote or join the military, the three additional years are somehow necessary to develop the maturity to make informed decisions about intoxication. The merit here is questionable as well, but what is evident is that by setting the same age for the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes, there is an implication that the two are comparably problematic in terms of public health. I won’t make any ludicrous claims about the healthfulness of smoking; tobacco is dangerous for both the smoker and anyone in her immediate vicinity. In such terms, smoking bans in public places certainly make sense. But smoking in private areas carries no potential harm for anyone else. It is something that folks probably shouldn’t do, but adults should ultimately be able to make their own decisions.

Today, every American knows the dangers of smoking. Personally, I have seen more public service announcements demonizing the act and commercials for smoking-cessation treatments than cigarette ads. That some choose still to smoke is not therefore a demonstration of ignorance; rather, it is an informed choice that weights the benefits of tobacco use above the health consequences. Viewed objectively, the choice to smoke is quite silly, as is joining the military as an infantryman or voting for some politicians. We as American adults are entitled, however, to make personal decisions according to our own elective calculus. Self-determination is a fundamental right and should not be impugned. If I as an 18-year-old choose to smoke in the privacy of my own living space, there is zero potential for greater societal harm of the sort introduced by alcohol use. To draw parallels between the two and regulate their sale equally is therefore inappropriate.

Smoking is a bad habit. But as Americans, do we not have the right to make bad choices? I am a legal adult, capable of buying a gun or being sentenced to life imprisonment. To claim that I lack the maturity to make a well-informed decision on tobacco usage is thus insulting to my dignity as a citizen. I am an adult and will smoke if I want to. Restricting my ability to purchase cigarettes isn’t a matter of public health; it is a matter of unjustified government interference.

David S over 10 years ago

An argument can be made that an individual smoking will long-term increase their risks of significant health problems, therefore creating a bigger burden on public health system. So even smoking in your private home can be shown to be dangerous to others.

However, I find it hard to believe such an argument is in the spirit of the (original) Constitution.

Red Cardinal over 10 years ago

I would say that if an adult chooses to smoke than that is certainly clear evidence that they do NOT have the maturity to make a well-informed decision. Like you said, 'objectively', the 'choice to smoke is quite silly'.

The reality is is that even when done in private the disadvantages of smoking outweigh the advantages. It has huge health risks and accounts for 20 of deaths in the USA. Unless ... being a burden on the health system, increased need for medication, taxes from cigarette sales, and death are good things as it keeps people like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and scientists employed ;-) .

I'm surprised that in this day and age we haven't banned smoking outright.

harleyrider1978 over 10 years ago


7 October, the COT meeting on 26 October and the COC meeting on 18

November 2004.


"5. The Committees commented that tobacco smoke was a highly complex chemical mixture and that the causative agents for smoke induced diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, effects on reproduction and on offspring) was unknown. The mechanisms by which tobacco induced adverse effects were not established. The best information related to tobacco smoke - induced lung cancer, but even in this instance a detailed mechanism was not available. The Committees therefore agreed that on the basis of current knowledge it would be very difficult to identify a toxicological testing strategy or a biomonitoring approach for use in volunteer studies with smokers where the end-points determined or biomarkers measured were predictive of the overall burden of tobacco-induced adverse disease."

In other words ... our first hand smoke theory is so lame we can't even design a bogus lab experiment to prove it. In fact ... we don't even know how tobacco does all of the magical things we claim it does.

The greatest threat to the second hand theory is the weakness of the first hand theory.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

Joining the military as an infantryman is an objectively silly choice? Excuse me? That's quite a bold claim you make that spits in the face of all the infantrymen who sacrifice their lives so you can have the freedom to say such rude things.

Way to ruin an otherwise well said article...

Anonymous over 10 years ago

2: "I would say that if an adult chooses to smoke than that is certainly clear evidence that they do NOT have the maturity to make a well-informed decision."

Consider the following:

"Any one who votes against Obamacare doesn't have their own best interests in mind, and obviously does NOT have the maturity to make a well-informed decision."

"Any one who rides a bike without a helmet does NOT have the maturity to make a well-informed decision."

"Any one who eats at McDonald's does NOT have the maturity to make a well-informed decision."

Your 'logic' is that only stupid people spoke because they can't make a decision. This is silly because there are many reasons to smoke, and do other things in the list above which different people assign different importance to. To say that it is obviously stupid is to ridicule people's decisions and thought-process.

3: So you're saying we can't prove how it kills, and so it doesn't kill? Are you a mathematician by any chance?

Anonymous over 10 years ago

You know who else didn't smoke?








Anonymous over 10 years ago

2: "I'm surprised that in this day and age we haven't banned smoking outright."

Similar arguments could be made for alcohol, unhealthy foods, unprotected sex, and drugs. We already have historical evidence of what would happen were alcohol to be banned. You'd have to do a lot of leg-work to establish what are and are not healthy foods not to mention justify banning the "unhealthy" foods. Just try and ban unprotected sex. And we can all see how well the drug war is working out in the US.

Simply banning stuff you have a personal objection to almost never works.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

A tendency to ban things reveals an authoritarian streak. Consider Bloomberg's other ill-fated initiative: ban large-sized sodas. Such authoritarian tendencies carry over into other areas like crime fighting and surveillance of minorities, and they do greater damage there. Good riddance.

Aaron Hammond over 10 years ago

4: "That's quite a bold claim you make that spits in the face of all the infantrymen who sacrifice their lives so you can have the freedom to say such rude things."

Infantryman sacrifice their lives presumably inspired by patriotism, which is objectively a silly choice on a personal level. I am certainly glad that so many brave folks choose to enlist, but it's near impossible to justify the choice on strict ROI.

Jeffrey Hammond over 10 years ago

While I did not read the same intent as 4 WRT to setting the age to join the military, I think the comment RE 9 is objectionable. Putting aside the intrinsic motivation of serving your country, service in the military has a direct financial benefit (ROI) as well, including the benefits of the GI bill, a steady job and the potential for rapid advancement on merit. If all being are motivated strictly by extrinsic factors, then there is minimal basis to do a lot of things, paying tuition for someone else, as an example :-)

Aaron Hammond over 10 years ago

The paltry pay and benefits resulting from military service don't even approach to compensate well for the sacrifice soldiers make to serve the country. In these terms, the choice to join is silly on a purely cold, rational basis. When we consider intrinsic motiviations (patriotism), the choice is justifiable. We all place different weights on intrinsic motivations (much as some might weight the social benefits of smoking above the negative health consequences), and we should be thankful that Americans have the right to make decisions according to their own conscience; otherwise, service might very well not be elective.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

So you're saying that we should be thankful that some Americans make the logical choice to join the military so everyone doesn't have to, but it's a silly choice?

You're welcome to leave the country, you know.

Aaron Hammond over 10 years ago

We should be thankful that some selflessly make a choice unjustifiable in purely objective terms, so the rest of us can be selfish.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

#12 went full-on Murrikaah.