Two bills will be proposed in Utah’s next general session, beginning in January 2014, to raise the age limit for those seeking to purchase tobacco products. Utah law currently prohibits those 18 and younger from “buy[ing] or attempt[ing] to buy, accept[ing], or ha[ving] in his possession any cigar, cigarette, electronic cigarette, or tobacco in any form.”
Two legislators, Representative Powell and Senator Reid, aim to increase that prohibition to the age of 21. Their motives are just, in aiming to decrease addiction to tobacco among young adults, but their means are misguided. Criminalizing legal adults from engaging in a behavior harmful to themselves is not the proper role of government; Utah law should protect people from harm by others, not micromanage their lives to minimize harm they may bring to themselves.
18-year-olds are adults by legal definition. Men and women at this age may join the military and be sent to die for their country. They can vote and thereby determine who runs the government that rules over them. Should they commit a crime, they will be tried as an adult in court. Thus, by increasing the age limit for certain actions, the state is telling adults that they are still juveniles to be parented under its claim to be parens patriae. In short, adults are not actually treated as such by the state.
Lawmakers should enact policy on principle and proper authority. Instead, too often they engage in data-driven decisions they feel justifies shaping society through coercive government mandates. For example, Representative Powell stated, “Studies show that an overwhelming majority of smokers try their first cigarette well before age 18. But the thing that caught my eye is they also say that the age when they become addicted [daily smokers] is closer to age 20.” Senator Reid similarly highlighted statistical trends in support of his proposal: “If people have not smoked by age 21, studies show it is extremely unlikely that they will ever begin smoking.” While these studies may well be true, they do not provide any authority for the government to pass a law in an effort to change the trend.
If your 20-year-old neighbor lights up a cigarette in the comfort of his basement bedroom, do you have the moral authority to intervene? Are you justified in using any form of coercion against him? Would you feel it appropriate to help him avoid addiction by stealing his wallet in the name of collecting a fine? Few would support personally performing such an action, yet many justify their government doing it indirectly on their behalf. It’s important to recall that governments only justly operate with the delegated authority of the citizens who comprise them; if you and I cannot do something, we cannot delegate that non-existent authority to the state.
These legislative proposals are misguided and should be opposed. Still, we should seek for ways to encourage young adults (and all individuals) to avoid addictive, self-destructive behavior. Non-profit organizations, parent groups, health insurance agencies, churches, and other voluntary institutions should coordinate their efforts and work through persuasion to combat tobacco and other addictions. However it happens, the state should play no part.