California made a bold move last week by passing legislation that raises from 18 to 21 the legal age for purchasing and using tobacco products.
If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the measure, California will join Hawaii and a number of major American cities that ban anyone younger than 21 from smoking legally.
Laws that limit Americans’ freedom to smoke, combined with higher cigarette taxes and public awareness campaigns, have transformed the face of smoking in America in a good way.
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that about 18 percent of Americans are smokers, down significantly from 1997 when almost 25 percent smoked.
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I don’t smoke and don’t plan to start; you probably don’t either. Still, I’ll admit to some ambivalent feelings about the pressure put on smokers.
We should probably always be wary when government regulation rubs up against personal freedom. Friction is inevitable, and there’s rarely a vivid, clear line between what’s right and what’s wrong.
But more important is the premise that smoking is a very, very bad habit. And while we should be extremely reluctant to limit the freedom of adults to do just about anything they want, no matter how self-harmful, we should err on the side of boldness in favor of laws that prevent young people from beginning to smoke.
In fact, let’s consider raising the smoking age to 25.
In realistic terms, this is unlikely to happen.
Any proposal to raise the age to 25 would be particularly vulnerable to the objection most often raised against a drinking age of 21: If, at 18, you’re old enough to fight and die for your country, you’re old enough to drink. Or smoke. Or vote.
Or drive. Or get married. But most states permit these last two activities at ages considerably younger than 18, which is to say that we’ve never been able to determine a single one-size-fits-all age of maturity.
And for many people, to smoke or not to smoke is a lifelong decision that 18-year-olds — or even 21-year-olds — are not yet mature enough to make.
Recent research indicates that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until around age 25, which is why car insurance companies charge their clients higher rates until they reach that age.
Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt told National Public Radio recently that 18-year-olds are only about halfway through a maturation process that begins at puberty and ends at around age 25.
Until that time, the undeveloped prefrontal cortex is unable to plan and organize for the future and to sufficiently control impulses and risk-taking.
In short, many under the age of 25 don’t have the mental maturity to decide if they want to take on an expensive, dangerous habit that will be extremely difficult to abandon.
By age 25, many have started careers and families. The drive to take risks and to impress their peers has begun to wane as they begin to notice the first inklings of their own mortality.
As they begin to see their lives as spans with beginnings and ends, they’re much less likely to begin smoking.
Of course, in practical terms laws against smoking before age 25 may not prevent a 23-year-old from smoking any more than current laws prevent 16- and 17-year-olds.
Still it’s important for society to be on the right side of this issue, to take the position that under 25 years of age you’re not mature enough to make this often irrevocable decision.
Beyond age 25, well, it’s a free country.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. firstname.lastname@example.org