Old enough to fight and vote but not to smoke


New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is proposing to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes in the city to 21. Perhaps it is her way of saying “I am Bloomberg!” in her campaign to replace him as mayor. Currently you must be 19 to purchase a tobacco product in the Big Apple.

Quinn’s hope is that by delaying legal access to tobacco, fewer young people will pick up the addictive habit. But if that approach is effective, why not enlarge our hopes and raise the legal access point to 31? Or even 61? If we can delay the first puff until the retirement years, then people will have no time to die of its effects. This seems ridiculous because it is. But how is it ridiculous? What in principle is the difference between 21 and 61?

Cigarette smoking in particular is a foul habit and a form of slow suicide. Its second hand effects assault the health of bystanders. But the rational basis underlying any minimum age for smoking or for tobacco purchases is the distinction between child and adult, between people who are considered not yet fully responsible for their actions and easily exploited and corrupted and those deemed fully capable of governing their own affairs. But when exactly do we expect adult responsibility of someone?

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In some cultures, 13 is the threshold of adulthood. In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah marks the point at which a young man at 13 is accepted as an adult with attendant rights and responsibilities. In America, adulthood is ambiguous. Since 1971, both the voting age and the draft age for military service have been 18. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” In most states, one cannot enter a binding contract, marry, or make a valid will until age 18. One “lacks capacity to contract.” (Some states allow marriage as young as 16 with parental consent.) The so-called “age of consent” differs state to state from 16 to 18. The smoking age, varying by state, is generally 18, in some states 19.

But the national drinking age is 21. It was established by federal statute in 1984 and imposed on the states by the threat of withholding highway funds. The goal was to decrease drunk driving accidents. We treat people in their college years, usually up to age 22, as though they were still children, and they often act accordingly. We call them “college kids” and the college functions in loco parentis. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) considers people children up to age 26, at which point they can no longer ride along on their parents’ health insurance.

So on what legitimate grounds does the city draw this line? Under the city’s police powers to regulate health, safety, and morals, it can ban smoking altogether. But to ban tobacco purchases for people under 21 suggests that a 20 year old is an innocent child in need of society’s special protection. This could be a soldier, an upper classman philosophy major, or a married person, even a parent.

At a time when adolescence, or so-called “pre-adulthood,” is viewed as extending even into one’s 30s, it’s time to start expecting more or our emerging adults, not less, and become more consistent in the legal signals we send them.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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