Beechert: Got A Light?

by Michael Beechert | 11/3/13 3:09pm

The New York City Council, with the full backing of soon to be former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, enacted a bill that would raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes to 21 within city limits. Considering the anti-smoking measures that the city has already adopted during Bloomberg’s reign, this newest effort comes as little surprise, and it is certainly consistent with the mayor’s other efforts to make America’s largest city a healthier place. With the costs of medical care continuing to rise, such endeavors may be, in a general idealistic sense, admirable. If an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure, then perhaps New York City’s pro-health legislation — smokers and soda-lovers be damned — is a good thing.

Or maybe it isn’t. A state court rejected the infamous big-soda ban on the grounds that the city’s board of health had exceeded its legislative authority by passing the measure. And already, smokers and libertarian-minded citizens, who are tired of what they see as excessive government intervention in the lives of individuals, are crying foul over the increased age requirement for cigarette buyers. Some joke that Bloomberg’s next project will be to institute mandatory aerobics and Pilates sessions in Central Park. Others respond that those things won’t become reality only because King Mike could only extend his term limits so far and won’t be in office come January.

I don’t smoke, and my father, who is a pulmonologist, has plenty of experience with lifelong pack-a-day users who have died excruciatingly painful deaths due to smoking-induced diseases. So I don’t have any personal interest in this bill, nor will I take up smoking and develop one. But I’m skeptical of the measure for two reasons. The first, and the simplest, is a fundamental belief that the government should generally let people mind their own business. It is difficult to argue that cigarette smoking is a pressing moral issue, in contrast to something like abortion, that might warrant special legislation. And although cigarette-smoking does affect non-users, secondhand smoke and absorbed healthcare costs being the two major factors, the right of an individual to live his life the way he wishes, absent some explicit and significant harm to others, has to be considered. The city’s justification for its bill is not enough to warrant what is, simply put, a further regulation on the liberties of private citizens.

When I turned eighteen, I had to register for the Selective Service, just like every other eligible American male. If the draft were ever reinstated, this system would be used to determine who is conscripted into the military; essentially, the government has deemed the age of eighteen to be old enough to die for the country. It seems strange, then, that the same eighteen year-old would not be fit, under the proposed law, to spend fifteen dollars on cigarettes. This odd juxtaposition contributes to the second reason for my skepticism – that the age of eighteen has already been determined as the marker for adulthood. Eighteen year-olds can vote, purchase a shotgun, file lawsuits, maintain custody of a savings account and have been driving for two years. Why should the choice to purchase cigarettes be treated, then, as anything other than a decision made by a legal adult? And why should New York City forbid that adult from buying a pack of Marlboros while Uncle Sam is ready and willing to give the same person an M-16 and orders to hunt down insurgents in Afghanistan?

I understand that those who start smoking in their youth have a harder time quitting later in life. I also understand that tobacco companies have lots of money, and that since they’re evil, greedy and the work of Satan himself, they print shiny posters to entice children to buy their products. But I do believe that the government’s ability to educate is a more effective and prudent tool than its power to prohibit, and that New York City would therefore do better to further engage in what have already been successful anti-smoking campaigns. The evidence that smoking is catastrophic to individual health, and an overall burden to the healthcare system, exists. Share that, and fewer people will smoke. Infringing on the right of adults to make their own decisions is hardly necessary.