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Raising the Cigarette Sales Age to 21: Politics Meets Paternalism

Minors shouldn't smoke. There is a law already on the books that covers this. Sales to minors are illegal. Enforce it and leave the adults alone.
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Burning cigarette in ashtray on table
Burning cigarette in ashtray on table

NYC council speaker and, more importantly, mayoral candidate Christine Quinn just stole her classmate's recipe.

We're told that Quinn is the co -- if not prime -- sponsor of a "new" proposal to raise the age for sales of cigarettes and all forms of tobacco from 18 to 21.

Except it's not new by a long shot. Quinn grabbed someone else's paper, frantically scribbled her name on it and is essentially claiming it as her own because she's been receiving failing marks lately by the public who grades what she dishes out.

It's politics riding the white coattail of "public health." Hostility toward adults who choose to smoke a legal product under the nurturing of modern day Carrie Nations has created such a cult-like following frenzy that any attack, no matter how amoral, causes a swarm in its direction like sharks to blood in the water.

That's the grizzled meat staring up at us from this plate, next to the potatoes served up in the name of "public health" but which are rotten to the core.

Poking at this meat first, we find Council Member James Gennaro, the original sponsor, shoved to the side. Because this is merely a revival of Gennaro's Intro 70 of 2006 when he first proposed increasing the cigarette sales age to 19. That detail is clearly marked at the bottom of today's Intro. Intro 70 became Intro 250 in 2010, and now 250-A to revise the age upwards to 21. Prior to today's Intro they each had eight and five co-sponsors respectively. None of them Quinn. In other words, it sat cold on a shelf until Quinn was desperate for a tasty dish on her flailing mayoral menu to reinvigorate the appetite of those who would elect her mayor but were lately pushing away from her table.

Not alone in this suspicion, Columnist Michael Goodwin offers his own reasoning for this. He believes she's pandering to Mayor Bloomberg because her latest policy positions have caused her to fall out of favor with the man who's had her back and whose endorsement could win her the election.

That's a possibility but as a runner-up. Even without Bloomberg Quinn was riding pretty high in the polls until she stopped acting like the Chris Quinn that originally put her on top - first resisting things like paid sick-leave for workers and then relenting with a watered-down version. Her popularity began to suffer. Enter former Congressman Anthony Weiner who says he might enter the mayoral race, siphoning precious votes away in a crowded field, and now Quinn's coronation is less assured.

So she's pandering all right, but more to the voters who've been slipping away. What better way to lure back a hungry mob than to dangle the hated smoker in front of them.

Quinn desperately needed red meat to throw. Smokers are stamped "Grade A." And Quinn promptly stamped out Gennaro as head chef and server.

Having identified the meat we look to the potatoes in this lifted recipe. That inspection was already completed seven years ago. Just as the old recipe was dusted off, here's the old report. Barely a word needs to change.

To justify the necessity of such law, proponents recite all sorts of statistics on youth smoking. All of them questionable and disputable. But most of all, none of it relevant in this debate. Because we're talking about adults... and the unconscionable way these laws are designed to strip them of their adulthood.

The rationale behind raising the age to 21 has absolutely no legitimate basis. It's government paternalism at its worst. Those having the legal power to redefine adulthood will do so if that's what it takes to impose their will on others. The unique intolerance for anyone smoking is the anti-smokers' excuse to reduce adults to the status of children.

Those aged 18 and above are not children. Cigarettes are legal. Responsibility, not "risk" is the issue at hand. At 18 one is deemed adult enough to make responsible choices -- to marry, to serve in the military (an immediate risk to health these days), and to vote for the very people who think they're not smart enough to make an informed decision.

It's that last thing that's most intriguing if you think about it. Elected officials find no issue accepting the votes of the 18 to 20-year-old age group -- apparently counting them as mature and informed enough to weigh the issues and vote based on those considerations that will shape the future of our city for everyone -- but deem them too immature and uninformed to make a decision to consume a legal product. In fact, considering the relentless anti-tobacco lectures received throughout their school years and public service announcements, it's easy to say they're more informed about smoking than they could ever be about someone who's asking them to choose them to lead. In other words, "we trust you to vote for us for your future but not for yourself for your future."

And then, in order to control smoking by those younger than 18, this older age group is rewarded for their vote by stripping them of the very adulthood that allowed them to vote for these politicians in the first place.

The officials who support this argue that those under 18 have access to cigarettes due to situational associations with those in this older age bracket.

But government has no place restricting the rights and privileges of adults in order to control the behavior of children. Suddenly revoking the legal choices of one group traditionally defined as adult in order to achieve this is unacceptable. You don't punish one to influence another. Yet, the message these politicians have for those who help vote them into office is, "Thanks for your vote but don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out."

Otherwise, the question they should be compelled to answer would be, "Since you feel 18 to 20-year-olds are incapable of an informed decision, will you decline to accept those votes toward the final vote results?"

When this was first proposed, Councilman Gennaro claimed risk trumps all. There is no doubt that is still the thinking. But life is full of risks. If risk is the measure then at what age are we safe from the politicians' tyranny?

Minors shouldn't smoke. There is a law already on the books that covers this. Sales to minors are illegal. Enforce it and leave the adults alone.

Serve this recipe upon the city and it won't be the meal -- having morphed into forbidden fruit -- that says "bite me."