When it comes to cigarettes – and their aerosolizing buddies, e-cigarettes – the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have been thinking with their raw instincts. And raw instincts don’t make for sensible laws, even when intentions are good.
The two bills recently signed into law raise the age for buying tobacco products to 21 and place e-cigs under the same regulations as regular cigarettes. Cigarettes are bad and so, our instincts tell us, more restrictions are good.
The first part of that is true: Smoking is horrific, with no positive aspects. It was marketed to us under false pretenses by corporate officials who didn’t care whether we suffered and died as long as they made money, and for far too long, government averted its gaze.
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I remember in my earliest days of covering the Legislature a woman testified before a committee about how secondhand smoke inflamed her asthma and made it hard for her to breathe; the legislation under consideration would have banned indoor smoking in public places, something we don’t think twice about now. One senator downright smirked as he puffed on a big old cigar.
Much as we’d like to get back at the purveyors of smoking and their allies, the evidence is not in yet on e-cigarettes. Yes, they are marketed and sold to minors, and that’s got to stop. But we don’t know yet whether people are being dragged into smoking via the act of vaping – or whether e-cigarettes might help them quit a smoking habit.
In April, the Royal College of Physicians – sort of the American Medical Association of the United Kingdom – took a strong stance in favor of e-cigarettes, saying the benefits clearly outweighed the harm. The organization could be wrong, but it’s certainly no shill for the smoking industry. It came out against cigarettes in the early 1960s, before the U.S surgeon general did.
California would have been better off leaving this to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which earlier this month announced regulations to oversee the ingredients in e-cigarettes and ban sales to minors; it also needs to crack down on faulty devices that have caused explosions.
OK, so maybe the state’s e-cig law went overboard, you figure, but surely anything that keeps people from smoking actual cigarettes must be good. Perhaps so, but in this country, we generally let adults decide whether to do things that are bad for them, as long as their actions don’t harm others. And in almost every way, we have decided that 18-year-olds are adults.
They can vote, join the military (strange to say, but the new tobacco age will not apply to those in the armed forces), marry and sign contracts that could haunt them for decades to come. They can’t buy beer, a law that’s ignored but might be semi-justified by the public danger of drunken driving. The new tobacco age will be ignored as well; 80 percent of smokers started when they were younger than 18.
If smoking is so awful that we must stop adults from deciding for themselves, shouldn’t that apply to all adults? Or, conversely, if we argue that people younger than 21 aren’t true adults because recent science shows their brains are still developing, why would we let them make the potentially dangerous decision to join the military? Or, heaven help them, sign up for a life-crushing load of student debt?
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.