21 to smoke: Does the new law send the right message & will it work?


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Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill into law that raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. It’s the latest effort by officials to deter young people from picking up the habit.  

The bill was sponsored by city councilman James Gennaro, whose mother and father reportedly died from tobacco-related illnesses, and backed by assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Sen. Diane Savino, the latter of whom is a former smoker and lost both her parents and a grandfather to lung cancer.


Where there’s a will, there’s a way

But is this the right approach? According to a report in the Guardian, “cigarette manufacturers suggested young adult smokers may just turn to the black market merchants, and some smokers say it is unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they are not old enough to decide whether to smoke.”

Arguably many young people start smoking because it’s a sign of rebellion, while others start because of peer pressure. Despite efforts to stop Big Tobacco from marketing to young people, cigarettes are still seen by many as sexy. Telling a young person who is trying to be perceived as a little bit dangerous that he or she can’t smoke until the age of 21 may backfire. By making it illegal to smoke, those cigarettes have, for some, just gotten that much sexier, if not a little bit dangerous. Just as there are underage drinkers — a fact we may not like but which is nevertheless the case — there are bound to be young people under the age of 21 who find a way to get their hands on cigarettes, regardless of tough legislation.

The bill’s supporters seem to have taken this into account, however, adding a companion bill that seeks to make it virtually impossible for smokers to find cheap tobacco products — in fact, setting a minimum price per pack of $10.50 — and that establishes stricter penalties an fines for violations.


Sending mixed messages

Will those determined to smoke, whether it’s because they want to see what all the fuss is about or because they want to be little asskickers who are breaking the law, really care? Surely, those caught selling tobacco products to those who are underage can and will be penalized, but how easy will it be to catch those who are buying? And how will the bill account for those who find ways around the roadblocks? We’re talking everything from fake IDs to having someone who is at least 21 do the purchasing. Kids can be incredibly clever about finding ways to do something that is perceived —  even by an overwhelming number of people — as stupid.

Say the law does successfully deter young people from smoking. Will it deter them from the polls, too? Telling 18-year-olds that they are mature enough to vote, while telling them they are not mature enough to decide for themselves whether to start smoking makes for a very mixed message. This is an emotionally charged issue for many supporters of the bill, whose mission it is to save lives and who feel that it’s best to eliminate choice.

But having noble intentions doesn’t and shouldn’t mean curtailing the rights of citizens. This is the land of the free, after all, and the move does feel a bit like, “We know what’s best for you; now shut up and do as we say.” With apathy being so pervasive among young people, it may be a big mistake to make them feel as if they are losing their voice and ultimately discourage them from becoming politically involved.

The bill’s effectiveness will remain to be seen, of course, and it would be in everyone’s best interest to look at statistics after a year to see how many young people were in fact deterred, how many flocked to corner stores to buy a pack on their 21st birthday and how many admit to getting around the new law. For now, however, it’s remains a polarizing topic, with people arguing for it, and many arguing against it.