The Food and Drug Administration raised the legal smoking age in the United States to 21 in late December 2019. Even though it’s almost been a year and a half since the smoking age was raised from 18, many teens still try to get away with buying cigarettes or vape products.
At the time, the biggest reason cited for the change related to vape pens, like Juuls, that were reportedly being marketed to children. Many in the US, however, believe that there was another reason for the change: one that has more to do with social interactions than public health.
When the legal age to buy tobacco products was 18, it meant that there would be some high school students who could legally smoke while most of their classmates could not. This led to social situations where younger kids trying to emulate their older classmates might illegally acquire tobacco products in an effort to fit in.
Likewise, when younger students wanted tobacco products, they could rely on their classmates to buy the products for them. Since it was legal for 18-year-olds to buy tobacco, it was much easier for younger kids to get their hands on the products.
This reasoning is almost identical to the reasons cited for alcohol’s legal age being pushed up to 21 in the 1980s. Making it more difficult for high school kids to acquire alcohol, in an effort to curb drunk driving, was the main motivator behind the 1984 Drinking Age Act.
However, just like with alcohol, this new smoking law has raised the question: Why is smoking even still legal? Smoking is a major health hazard, and laws surrounding how tobacco companies can advertise have made it all but illegal for them to promote their products in any way. Smoking cessation options remain extremely popular as more people than ever are trying to quit the habit.
And, just like with alcohol, the answer is simple: Tobacco remains legal because it is a great source of tax revenue. Beyond that, tobacco companies have sizable lobbies that would protest loudly if Congress tried to outlaw their products altogether.
Typically, this argument boils down to the role of the government. Is it up to the government to make sure the public makes no bad decisions? Or is it more important that the public makes their own decisions, irrespective of the government’s stance on certain substances?