From a philosophical standpoint, a new proposal in King County cuts right to the heart of an ongoing debate among Americans.
Namely, what is (or should be) the role of government? Where do we draw the line of demarcation between government involvement and personal responsibility? What is the role of government as a protector of the people from themselves? The answers could lead to a Ph.D. dissertation, but for now we shall limit our discussion to the proposal that is on the table — raising the age for purchasing tobacco to 21.
That is the suggestion from the King County Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Administrative Board, a 15-member volunteer board created to provide input to health officials in the state’s most populous county. The board has proposed raising the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21, bringing it in line with alcohol sales and the recreational use of marijuana as spelled out in Initiative 502.
At this point, the proposal is nothing more than an idea. And yet it brings to the forefront several crucial questions. Would this be a reasonable use of governmental power, or merely and overextension of what critics decry as a Nanny State that is becoming increasingly intrusive upon personal freedom? How far should governments be allowed to go in order to save the public from its poorer tendencies?
The discussion is not limited to King County, as municipalities in many parts of the nation have seen fit to play the role of protector. In New York City, for example, a proposal to ban the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces — all in the name of public health — is still being fought over in the courts. Other jurisdictions have moved to ban the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants.
With that in mind, the idea of changing the age for tobacco sales in King County is easily rejected. For example, Pat Godfrey, chairman of the board that recommended the change, argued, “Consistency is a significant factor, especially when you look at the logic. And by making it uniform to marijuana and liquor, it makes it easier for the retailers.” Sorry, but that actually fails the logic test. We have a little more faith in store employees being able to tell the difference between tobacco and alcohol and having the ability to remember the age limits for each.
The idea fails on other levels, as well, the most obvious being thus: If people are old enough to be sent to war at the age of 18, they certainly are old enough to make personal decisions about tobacco use. In this regard, the difference between tobacco and alcohol or marijuana is easily delineated. Alcohol/marijuana use can endanger innocents; on the other hand, we are not aware of anybody causing a car crash while under the influence of tobacco.
There is no doubt that tobacco use by an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old or even a 48-year-old is not advisable. Tobacco is, indeed, a highly addictive drug and a danger to personal health, and keeping teens from using it is an admirable goal. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 23.3 percent of high school students nationwide used a tobacco product in 2012, and a recent rise in the popularity of e-cigarettes has triggered concerns that the product will serve as a gateway to tobacco cigarettes.
But none of that presents a strong enough reason for King County to raise the age for legal tobacco purchases. On some issues, the people should be expected to protect their own health rather than relying upon government to do it for them.