Blowing smoke

Will raising the smoking age to 21 make a difference?

By Sarah Sidlow

Let’s play a numbers game: In 2015, about 15 out of every 100 U.S. adults (ages 18 and over) reported smoking cigarettes on a regular basis—that’s an estimated 36.5 million adults. Every year, cigarette smoking is the cause of more than 480,000 preventable deaths in the United States. Experts and other normal people agree: Smoking is bad for you.

But experts and other normal people are divided on whether raising the legal tobacco-purchasing age from 18 to 21 would make any difference.

Some states, including New York, California, Hawaii, and Oregon have decided to give it a shot.

And there is some case-study evidence that suggests the legal purchase age could impact smoking habits over a lifetime.

Case in point: Needham, Massachusetts, which raised its smoking age to 21 in 2005. Since then, teenage smoking declined from 13.5 percent in 2006 to 5.5 percent in 2012. While the city’s director of public health conceded the decline can’t solely be attributed to the legal change, it’s fair to argue that a community can embrace a common goal like smoking cessation and make significant strides.

Those who argue in favor of raising the legal smoking age point to the fact that many smokers pick up the habit before they turn 21. In medicine, they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Therefore, if children don’t have the option to smoke until they’re 21 (at which point a person’s brain processes nicotine differently), they will be less likely to start at all.

And since smokers don’t only harm themselves—cough, secondhand smoke, and parents modeling smoking behavior to children—the stakes in this debate are generationally high.

But lots of people argue that raising the legal age to buy tobacco won’t solve the problem—it might even make it worse.

To start, some question whether raising the age will have any impact at all. Many smokers start the habit before 18, meaning even the current legal age might not be doing much to prevent smoking.

Moreover, smoking rates are already going down on their own. This decline isn’t due to age raises, but to other laws and cultural and business practices like cigarette taxes, smoke-free workplace and restaurant policies, and health incentives for non-smokers.

Plus, critics argue, a change in the law doesn’t often translate to a change in behavior. Plenty of underage drinkers (not naming names) have no problem finding alcohol, so suggesting that a higher age requirement for buying tobacco will considerably curb youth smoking is a little silly. Instead, the age raise might just encourage fake IDs and black market smokes.

And then there’s that whole thing about individual rights—many believe smoking is a personal choice (sometimes encouraged by cultural or even religious practices), and no one, least of all the government, should get involved—put that in your pipe and smoke it. Fun facts: Not too long ago, tobacco smoking was recommended by physicians for everything from weight loss to decreased risk of ulcerative colitis.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at

Raise the bar

Reduce the smoking age, the toll on everyone

By Missy Mae Walters

From my own observations, there are more people, both young and old, who are kicking the habit of smoking. It doesn’t seem to be as popular as it once was, but then again, I am sure this can be attributed to the emergence of those hookah bars and vapor stores we now see on street corners and shopping centers throughout the area. Smoking, or at least the inhalation of cigarette smoke, is simply not the cool thing to do amongst our younger generation.

Is there further action that needs to be taken to reduce smoking? Well, there are some out there, including myself, who believe everything possible needs to be done to increase the health and wellbeing of our population.

Not many people might be aware of a growing trend across the country to further crack down on smoking amongst young people. Elected officials are using the power of the legislative body to make changes. So far there are four state legislatures that have increased the smoking age from 18 to 21. These states include Maine, California, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Others are sure to follow.

The states making these changes cite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates over 5.6 million of today’s younger generation will die from smoking-related illnesses unless changes, while unpopular, are made. Additionally, the U.S. Surgeon General cites that over 480,000 people die each year as a result of prolonged tobacco use. In most states, the changes have focused on increasing the tax on cigarettes, hitting many smokers’ pocketbooks and forcing the choice.

In addition to state action, over 250 cities have also adopted similar measures. One of the most notable happened in Needham, Massachusetts, where in 2005, the city raised the age to 21. Following the law’s passage, tobacco use among the high-school age groups dropped more than half. Many cite this statistic and other cities with similar outcomes as powerful and a step in the right direction.

Here in Ohio, the legislature does not currently have any filed bills to raise the age from 18 to 21, but discussions are happening. This is, in part, due to concerning statistics of Ohio’s own high school students. As of 2013, in a report issued by the Ohio State University College of Public Health, more than one in five Ohio high school students reported using some form on tobacco within the previous 30-day period.

The question comes down to this: if you believe if an individual does not smoke before 21, if they are less or more likely to do so after they do turn 21 and would then be able to make a legal purchase?

Many leading health organizations believe it would make the difference. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes if young people, whose brains are still developing up until the time they turn 21, do not experience the “rush” of nicotine associated with smoking, they are less likely to smoke.

I am a big believer in personal responsibility and people making their own choices, if they wish, to harm their bodies. In this instance, though, smokers’ decision to continue puffing and inhaling carcinogens has and will continue to contribute to a public health epidemic. We all know smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. If we know something is bad for us why do we do it?  There has to be a point where the madness has to stop.

I draw the line when the individual poor choices impede the overall health of our society and others’ pocketbooks.

The 480,000 people who are dying every year are dying after going through costly treatments, which in many cases, are subsidized by other taxpayers. I am not saying every person going through treatments does not deserve care. What I am saying is we have to get a handle on this crisis so we can start driving down the increasing financial burdens of such care. The public dollar is being stretched thinner and thinner every year and with the uncertainty of health care in our country, we cannot afford to not take the necessary and easy preventative measures.

The increase of the smoking age from 18 to 21 can have a significant impact on our future, and if it can be started now—and followed through in multiple generations—it will lead to healthier communities everywhere.

Missy Mae Walters serves as the senior associate of campaigns and public affairs at JSN & Associates. Walters served as the regional political director for the Trump for President Campaign in Ohio and is a former executive director of the Montgomery County Republican Party. Reach her at

First they came for the cigarettes…

The right to smoke is the right to privacy

by Victor DeLaine

Whether you smoke is no one’s business but your own. Whether you’re 21 or 101, it should never be the government’s decision.

For decades, we’ve recognized a right of privacy, a right to do as you please with your own body.  How can smoking fall outside that right?  If the government were trying to prohibit people under 21 from buying condoms, from getting abortions, or from having sex, every progressive voice in the country would join in the ensuing uproar. Yet those same progressives turn into fascists when it comes to smoking. The states leading the nanny-state charge against smoking are all governed by progressives.

And they’re not stopping with cigarettes. What they’re trying to do to tobacco today they’ll do to your favorite dessert tomorrow. That’s not just the slippery-slope anxiety of a paranoid smoker.  It’s already happening in places like New York, Berkeley, and Chicago, where the pecksniffs who are taxing the bejeezus out of cigarettes are starting to do the same thing to soft drinks, and for the same reason.

What is that reason?  It is that more and more Americans’ healthcare is paid for by the government. When the cost that results from what you do with your body has to be paid by everyone else, then what you do with your body becomes everyone else’s business. When that starts happening, defending the right to privacy becomes a difficult thing. It’s hard to argue with the Smoking Nazis when they point to the bills they have to pay for your cancer care after years of smoking. Dictating what you can and can’t do with your own body starts sounding reasonable.  The thing is, the Smoking Nazis’ argument can be used just as effectively by the Sex Nazis. The bills that all those taxpaying suburbanites have to cover for AIDS care, for illegitimate children, and for Sandra Fluke’s contraceptives make your bedroom a forum of public concern.  When single-payer healthcare arrives and the state starts paying for the entire upkeep and maintenance of your body, the state will have every right to act as though it owns your body.  The state will own your body—not just the lungs you smoke with, but also the genitals you copulate with.  So if you’re serious about sovereignty over your own body, you shouldn’t let the nanny state wrap its sticky red tape around any part of it. When some do-gooder starts putting more restrictions on who can legally smoke, non-smokers should be just as concerned as smokers.

Admittedly, none of this addresses the question the Dayton City Paper has posed, which is whether raising the age at which you can legally buy cigarettes will “make a difference.” Of course it will make a difference. Though it will criminalize more victimless commerce than we already criminalize and will require every clerk at every 7-11 to card anyone with pimples who buys tobacco, it will also undoubtedly reduce the amount of smoking and, therefore, the frequency and severity of lung cancer. That’s a good thing by any measure.

But that puts us right back onto that irritating slippery slope. Prohibiting people under 21 from consuming Pepsi or salt or Happy Meals would reduce expensive illnesses too. On what principled basis can we restrict those under 21 from smoking without forbidding them these other vices?  Smoking, it will be observed, has no beneficial health effects.  Smoking offers nothing but a pleasant sensation.  But that’s just as true of cheesecake, ice cream, and sodomy.  Sometimes pleasure alone, and the momentary relief it gives from the strains of daily life, is reason enough for a person to choose that pleasure even if he knows it will endanger his health or shorten his life.  Our penny-pinching overlords should have no more right to require a 20-year-old to forego the pleasure of a smoke than they do to require him to forego the pleasure of a Snickers bar.

Ideas have consequences. When we regulate similar things in dissimilar ways, we cry foul.  There was no good reason to withhold from black people the rights we gave white people, so we stopped withholding. There was no good reason to refuse gay couples the marital opportunities we gave straight people, so we stopped refusing.  And the same need for moral consistency means that, if there is no good reason to exempt other parts of your body from the restrictions the state has been putting lately on your lungs, it may soon stop exempting.

That is why this latest curtailment of smokers’ rights bodes ill for the right of privacy.  Be vigilant about that right. Defend that right. And recognize that the first line of defense against the state’s regulatory assault on your body is your right—whether you exercise it or not—to smoke.

Reach DCP freelance writer Victor DeLaine at

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