The $1.4 trillion budget currently being rammed through Congress should attract our attention because it’s yet another massive behemoth monstrosity of a spending bill and it yet again signals that fiscal conservatism, if it ever existed at all, has been dead for many decades. The budget will add $500 billion to our deficits, meaning the government will spend vastly more than the nearly $4 trillion it collects in tax revenue annually. Our leaders in Washington already appropriate the equivalent of the entire net worth of half of the world’s billionaires every year, but it’s not enough, we’re told. Not even close to enough. Thus, deficits and crippling national debt.
If this wasn’t bad enough — and made all the worse by the fact that Republican voters appear entirely apathetic about this issue, despite all of the Tea Party theatrics a few years ago — consider what else they’ve jammed into this bill. Despite being at best only vaguely related to spending and budgets, a group of Democrats and Republicans have crafted a plan to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21, and they’ve attached it like a barnacle onto this budgetary Titanic. Once the bill is made law, it will be illegal across the country to sell tobacco or vaping products to anyone under the age of 21.
It doesn’t take much reflection to notice the absurdity of this situation. The law will say that people at the age of 18 lack the emotional maturity or mental competence to decide for themselves whether they want to smoke a cigarette or use a vape pen. Now remember all of the things that the laws says 18-year-olds are mature and competent enough to do. Here’s a partial list:
– Buy a shotgun
– Get a tattoo
– Sign a mortgage
– Take on crippling student loans
– Sign a contract
– Get married
– Get an abortion
– Serve on a jury
– Serve on the battlefield
– Be tried as an adult in federal court
– Be executed by the government
There is no theory of human psychology and development that makes any sense of this dichotomy. It seems thoroughly obvious that anyone who can be trusted to wage war on a battlefield, or decide someone’s fate on a jury, or pilot a 4,000-pound hunk of metal down the highway at 75 miles per hour, or make financial commitments that will affect the course of their lives for decades to come, can certainly be trusted with a vape pen. Another way of putting it: Anyone who cannot be trusted with a vape pen cannot be trusted with any of that stuff. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want someone so incompetent deciding my guilt or innocence in a court of law.
If we are grasping for anything resembling consistency, it seems we have a few courses available, and none of them include empowering people to do almost every important and potentially dangerous thing while still depriving them the right to smoke a cigar. The non-arbitrary options would be:
(1) Move the age for almost everything cited above, along with tobacco use, to 21 or older. This would be consistent and coherent. It would also be wrong, in my opinion. We do not instill maturity in young adults by legally infantilizing them. Moving the age of legal adulthood to 21 or older forces people to remain in suspended adolescence, which would seem to accomplish the exact opposite of what we should be trying to accomplish in our culture.
(2) Keep the age of legal adulthood at 18 and include tobacco use and, for that matter, alcohol use in that bundle. This is the approach I favor.
(3) Ban tobacco outright on the basis that it’s poisonous and dangerous and nobody should be using it. Most of the arguments I’ve read in favor of increasing the tobacco age have really been arguments for this third option. As dozens of people have no doubt already observed in the comments section, I am not averse to the idea of banning harmful things, so I’m not going to claim that the argument for banning tobacco is incoherent or inherently absurd. But I still don’t agree with it.
Tobacco is not intrinsically evil or significantly damaging in small doses. Both tobacco and alcohol, in moderation, are nearly harmless. The harm of an occasional cigar at least does not outweigh the harm of an occasional Big Mac. Neither does the harm of immoderate tobacco use outweigh the harm of immoderate fast food consumption. Many more people die from obesity-related causes than from smoking, after all.
That said, at least a call to ban tobacco is defensible. There is nothing necessarily inconsistent with claiming that 18-year-olds are old enough to vote, drive, and get tattoos, but not old enough to smoke because nobody should be able to smoke. There is something inconsistent and incoherent about arguing that tobacco is terrible so you should have to wait until three years after you become a legal adult to use it.