DANIEL VAUGHAN: The smoking age increase is another Nanny State power grab

May 24, 2019

There’s almost nothing more annoying than when the Big Government crowd tries to micromanage our everyday lives. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to ban 7/11’s Big Gulps, the Vox crowd wants to tax fast food, and now the federal government wants to raise the smoking age to 21. It’s another arbitrary nanny state law that doesn’t fix a real problem in society. But more importantly, it’s a blatant power grab by the federal government from the states.

Everything about the age restriction is utter nonsense. Most aspects of society treat 18-year-olds as legal adults. We have the voting age set at 18; the typical teenager graduates high school around the age of 18; you can enter the military and be sent to war at 18; you can enter any of the 25 most dangerous professions at the age of 18; 18-year-olds are encouraged to take on mountains of debt for college; and Democrats think 18-year-olds are so smart that we should lower the voting age to 16.

These same 18-year-olds receive no leniency if they’re arrested and tried by the court system — they are treated like any other adult. For all the talk of the dangers of tobacco, the federal government doesn’t mind if you die in a work accident, join the military and get killed overseas, end up with a life sentence in prison, or take on life-altering college debt at 18. But may God have mercy on your soul if the feds catch you trying to light up a cigarette.

When the federal legislation was trotted out, the stated rationale went like this: “Increasing the smoking age to 21 is that high school students are likely to know someone who is 18 who can legally purchase tobacco, but they are less likely to have friends who are 21.”

But this is a solution in search of a problem. As Reason Magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown pointed out, “In 2016, cigarette smoking among U.S. adults stood at about 15.5 percent, down from 20.9 percent a decade or so earlier and around 42 percent in the 1960s.”

The legislation does nothing to curb tobacco use, and tobacco companies know this — which is why they, vaping companies, and even cannabis companies are spending lobbying dollars in favor of the new age limit increase. There’s a little bit of the “bootleggers and Baptists” phenomenon happening here, where two groups with opposing interests are on the same side — one for “moral” reasons, and the other for profit.

But the most problematic part of this proposed legislation is that it’s a power grab by the federal government. The legislation declares that anyone under the age of 21 can’t purchase tobacco products. Back when the feds attempted to push through age restrictions on the purchase of alcohol, they at least recognized they couldn’t do such a thing. Instead, they incentivized the states to raise the age limit by tying it to interstate funding.

This new legislation is a clear indicator that we have entered a new age with no connection to constitutional reality. States can set the age of purchasing products if they want, but nothing in the commerce power gives states the power to dictate the purchasing power of anyone based on age.

The real result of this age increase will be that liberal cities will use it to punish minority communities. In those cities where crime is an issue, they often use the “broken glass” theory of policing, where they focus on harshly enforcing small misdemeanors like littering, jaywalking, and other small-crimes to create an environment of law enforcement. And while that theory can work, more people end up going to jail for small things, or in the future, for smoking cigarettes as a teenager, than for major crimes. And minority communities are liable to bear the brunt of this policing in liberal cities (similar to what liberals have done to black gun owners).

So to recap — the federal government wants to seize power from the states to fix a problem that doesn’t exist by restricting the freedom of Americans on the basis of age, using legislation written by Big Tobacco lobbying groups. All this to create another misdemeanor crime to be enforced by police forces that are more interested in busting people for smoking than in cracking down on real crime problems.

Glenn Reynolds once wrote of the Nanny State, “The nannyism is partly to distract from the corruption — and partly just another opportunity to leverage it. A good general rule is that the more a government wants to run its citizens’ lives, the worse job it will do at the most basic tasks of government.”

And it’s not hard to look at the federal government’s inability to do something as simple as passing a budget — one of its constitutional duties — and see this nanny statism for what it is: a distraction from the abysmal governing decisions by our national leaders.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.