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When is a smoker an adult? Why we shouldn’t raise the legal smoking age to 21

I support nudging smoking choices by taxation policy, packaging, warnings and information campaigns. But redefining adulthood is a step too far. Lana Veshta/Shutterstock

The Tasmanian government is considering whether to raise the age at which people can legally purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 or possibly even 25. California is also moving to increase the legal age to 21.

The rationale being made for the move is that Tasmania has the highest smoking prevalence in the country and that the number of people who ever take up smoking after the age of 25 is as rare as rocking horse poo.

No one is arguing that such a plan would stop those aged 18 to 21 or 25 from buying tobacco entirely.

Juvenile smoking suppression acts have existed in state legislation since the early years of last century. But these long-standing laws that can fine retailers from selling tobacco to those under 18 have not stopped 5.1% of 12- to 17-year-olds from smoking in the most recent national survey.

Young people can ask older people to purchase for them, they can get given occasional cigarettes from smokers or sneak them from family members’ supplies.

And with prosecutions of shopkeepers for selling cigarettes being very uncommon, many would reason that the risks of being caught selling, let alone of being fined, are minuscule.

So many kids who smoke know that buying cigarettes is still child’s play.

It hardly follows from this though, that such laws should be abandoned and cigarettes should be able to be sold to children of any age. Your ten-year-old included.

In 2011, 40% of Perth shops were found to be selling tobacco to children, but this means 60% didn’t.

While kids’ intelligence networks quickly spread word of which shops will sell cigarettes, if all did, access would be far easier and an important step taken to re-normalise a product that is deservedly subjected to exceptional regulations such as plain packaging, advertising and retail display bans.

Children’s smoking rates today are the lowest on record, an achievement worth keeping and furthering.

But what would be the merits of bumping up the legal purchase age to 21 or 25?

Tasmanian retailers argue that it would be unworkable because young cashiers would be intimidated by 18- to 24-year-old customers.

Hire car company staff are apparently made of sterner stuff. That industry has long run its own version of moving the boundaries of the effective definition of being an adult. Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Thrifty will not rent cars to those under 21, and if you are under 25 you will pay a steep premium.

But the retailers’ main concerns are unabashed anxiety that the move would reduce cigarette sales, which is clearly the intended outcome. A Tasmanian Small Business Council spokesperson said:

Tobacco products are a legal thing to sell and for lots of small businesses, especially in rural and remote areas, it’s a significant part of their daily income. It’s a major part of their convenience offering… it’s going to have a significant effect on their viability. The last thing we’re going to do is stop our regional areas from having any sort of good-quality businesses just for some idiot sort of policy like this.

While I have great sympathy with my Tasmanian colleagues’ desires to pull smoking rates to at least national parity, I am personally unsupportive of the proposal.

Supporting efforts to symbolically reduce retail access to tobacco has long been a card played by Big Tobacco. For many years it has enthusiastically supported efforts to put notices in shops advising that kids will not be sold cigarettes and encouraging prosecutions of retailers who sell.

But they know that the signs are useless, that retailers are rarely prosecuted and most of all, how vital to their future it is to capture and hold teenage smokers as customers.

But my concerns go wider. An argument often against raising the legal smoking age to 21 is that legal adult age for many significant rights is 18. At 18 you can vote, sign contracts, get married without parental consent, join the armed forces, be held criminally responsible for your actions, and serve custodial sentences in adult jails.

The argument here is that in all these areas sentience and responsibility are assumed. The freedoms involved carry consequences (both positive and negative) for which those engaging in those freedoms should take personal responsibility. I find that argument pretty hard to disagree with.

I support nudging smoking choices by taxation policy, packaging, warnings and information campaigns, ingredient controls, and not forcing non-smokers to breathe second-hand smoke. But redefining adulthood is a step too far.

The simplest and most obvious way of addressing controls on retailers selling to kids would be to ban any shop or shop owner found selling tobacco to minors from ever having a tobacco retail license. Full stop.

When I recently put my concerns about the redefinition of adulthood to a Facebook page on global tobacco control that I moderate, one reply came back that in the United States the 1984 National Minimum Age Drinking Act puts the legal age to purchase alcohol at 21. This person said:

and there is virtually no opposition to it. The difference between smoking and the other behaviours you mention is that none of them are addictive, whereas cigarettes are.

Yes, that is certainly a difference. But the ethical test of a policy or law is not its popularity.

I’m unaware of any social justice arguments that elevate potential for addiction way ahead of all the other risks that go along with the other things that society deems mark the difference between being a non-legally consenting child from a fully legally consenting adult at 18.

For example, are we all comfortable arguing that young adults aged 18,19 or 20 who have committed a crime could be sentenced to jail and subjected to the brutalities of living among hardened criminals, but could not legally purchase a cigarette outside jail?

The US’s attitude to legal drinking age is deeply rooted in its historical puritanism. I remember going to a baseball game in Virginia when I was in my 40s and having to produce ID to show I was over 21 to buy a beer. I can see the tobacco law is consistent with that, but I’m not sure that this is an argument that would wash outside the US with that culturally puritanical heritage.

Another person replied that “Sixteen year olds are allowed to drive here – another activity where sentience is assumed, with the freedoms involved carrying consequences.” Does that argue for raising the driving age or lowering the age of everything else? That stuck me as the nub of the debate.

What do you think?

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