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Commentary: Thoughts on Virginia’s New Increased Age to Purchase Tobacco

27 Feb 2019

My home state of Virginia recently became the latest to up the age at which adults are allowed to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. It joins California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, and Oregon (along with the District of Columbia) in a trend that appears to be spreading.

A Slippery Slope

You may be old enough to vote or join the military (possibly even drafted into it), but that doesn’t mean you can choose to buy tobacco. If this seems odd to you, it should. Eighteen has always been the demarcation between children and adults; with adults getting to decide whether or not to use a legal product like tobacco, while we accept that children must be protected from having the same choices.

The justification appears to be that government is failing to effectively enforce the law that stops those under 18 from using tobacco, and it will be easier to stop minors from smoking if we also make it illegal for non-minors aged 18-20 from obtaining. That’s probably true, just as lowering the speed limit from 65 to 45 would make people less likely to drive over 65. But there is no limit to this justification.

What’s to stop the age from being raised again when the government cannot completely enforce the new 21-year-old age limit, and some 20-year-olds still manage to get their hands on cigarettes? The answer is nothing.

That’s a scary thought when you consider that many of the groups pushing this new restriction have as their ultimate goal a complete prohibition on tobacco products for everyone. After all, people older than 21 make bad decisions sometimes. Just ask Virginia Governor Ralph Northam who signed the bill into law and exercised some very bad judgement in his mid-twenties.

Being Anti-Tobacco Isn’t a Partisan Issue

One of the things that the Virginia bill demonstrates is that both Democrats and Republicans are willing to vote against cigar rights. Indeed, the bill couldn’t have become law without bi-partisan support.

In the Virginia state house, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, 46 Democrats and 21 Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Meanwhile, in the state senate, where Republicans also hold a two-member majority (21-19), all but eight Republicans voted for the bill. Then finally Democrat Governor Northam signed the bill into law.

Bootleggers and Baptists

You’d expect the anti-tobacco lobby to support raising the age for purchasing tobacco products, but it’s also worth noting another supporter of this legislation: the giant cigarette company Altria (maker of Marlboro). If this surprises you, it shouldn’t.

Altria also supported giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products including cigars, reportedly in part because the company thought that regulating the industry would help it fend off competition and maintain its large market share. It’s another example of an economic concept known as bootleggers and baptists, both of whom had their own reasons for supporting prohibition.

Patrick S

photo credit: Wikipedia

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