In defense of the 18-year-old smoker

Matthew Walther

Despite my almost total disdain for their political philosophy, I find that I agree with radical libertarians about an enormous number of things. I am glad that Social Security exists, but I do not like the fact that for the rest of my life I will be associated with a nine-digit number assigned to me at birth. I detest most of the local zoning ordinances under which I live, and would happily get rid of drivers' licenses (which would not meaningfully increase the number of bad drivers on the road), vehicular registration, mandatory car insurance, and open-container laws, including ones that apply to drivers. This is to say nothing of restaurant smoking bans, which are an affront not only to the rights of property but to the most ancient laws of hospitality.

This is why I have been disappointed by the almost total lack of attention being paid to the most recent assault on the fortress of liberty. It looks all but certain that this week Congress will sneak an amendment forbidding the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21 into the text of a massive spending bill.

One reason I am not a libertarian is that I believe the law should be a teacher. What is the law teaching us here? That smoking is a more serious business than federal, state, and local elections? I am not so sure that this is false, but would most Americans agree with me? If they did, they would insist that our legislators either raise the voting age to 35 and stop whining about so-called "voter ID laws" or reverse course and allow young people to purchase alcoholic beverages in addition to tobacco at the age of 18 (or younger). I still don't know who these people are who; because they do not possess a driver's license, a passport, or even a free state-issued picture identification card; are unemployed and prevented from driving, flying, or engaging in commerce but who also take an active and serious interest in public affairs and wish to participate in elections.

This is to say nothing of the question of our armed forces. I cannot imagine how anyone could seriously entertain the idea that an 18-year-old should be allowed to sign up for the possibility of losing his life in combat but not allowed to purchase a pack of Camels. Some decisions are weightier than others, and I'm sure we can all agree that volunteering to fight for Uncle Sam should involve more mature deliberation than, say, buying a pouch of Red Man. (This is why Texas and other states that currently restrict sales of tobacco to those aged 21 and older make an exception for the troops.)

Tobacco is seemingly the only area of our public life in which there is a widespread bipartisan consensus in favor of lunacy. Not long ago, a state representative introduced a bill in the legislature of Hawaii that would have raised the minimum purchase age for cigarettes to 100 in 2024. At a certain point, one has to ask why we don't simply make it illegal. Many people probably wish to do so, even as the apartment complex pot dealer with his pet iguana gives way to Dope Inc. (Funny that no one seems to mind the rule of law being undermined in this case.)

It is in part because of the fundamental unseriousness with which the issue is debated that I feel comfortable taking the opposite position. Never mind the logical absurdities inherent in legalizing a drug with psychosis-inducing properties while persecuting a bunch of harmless old ladies who enjoy a Virginia Slim with their morning coffee. What about the actual 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds who want to smoke regardless of whether they have volunteered for one of our never-ending wars? It seems to me a very uncomplicated issue: they should be allowed to do so if they wish.

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