New Jersey Bill to Raise Legal Tobacco Age

Catherine Etienne '18 Contributing Writer 

New Jersey may be the first state to raise the legal tobacco age to 21 years old. The penalty for selling a box of cigarettes to a person under 21 would be $500 for the first offense, and then $1,000 for every additional offense. So far a select number of cities across the nation have already raised the tobacco age to 21, including New York City, Hawaii County and Evanston, IL, just to name a few. And it doesn’t end with these cities. More cities and states are expressing interest in implementing similar bills.

The bill, however, won’t accomplish much. Sure, illegalize tobacco for people under 18; that makes sense. But once a person turns 18 and becomes a legal adult, good luck trying to get them to care about what the law says they can and can’t put in their body. According to the American Lung Association, almost 70% of adult smokers started smoking before the age of 18. Clearly, current tobacco laws, which prohibit those under the age of 18 from buying cigarettes, have done little to prevent underage smoking.

However, to be fair, there is a strong  argument in  support of the bill. The problem with 18-year-olds being able to purchase tobacco is that many people who are 18 are still in high school and act as suppliers to younger children. And 18-year-olds distribute 90% of the tobacco given to minors. So raising the tobacco age to 21 would distance the connections younger adolescents would have with people of legal tobacco purchasing age.

But if the goal of raising the tobacco age is to try and diminish the amount of people from becoming smokers, why not go all the way and just ban tobacco altogether? Why say that smoking is so terrible for one’s health that it must be illegal until one turns 21, at which point it’s completely OK? It’s probably because a lot of people would be angry. Tobacco would become the new illicit drug on the black market. And prisons would welcome new inmates whose only cause for being there was being caught sneaking a smoke during their bathroom break.

The government can’t just prohibit people from smoking; they have to deter them from doing it in the first place. In her article entitled “Why Smoking Rates are at New Lows” published in the New York Times, Sophie Egan attributes public policies like smoke-free air laws and cigarette taxes as reasons why fewer people smoke. It’s important to note that these strategies don’t prevent adults from smoking; they just make it more difficult for them to do so. With that being said, the government is not going to stop legal adults from doing whatever the heck they want. If 18-year-olds already have the right to vote, drive and join the military, do people really think that they’ll sit and wait until they’re 21 to be able to smoke a cigarette?

New Jersey can follow through and pass the bill. They can follow through and prohibit legal adults from making decisions like adults until they’re 21. But they can’t prohibit people from dismissing laws and acting on their own accord. Because, when it comes down to it, passing a bill can only do so much.