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Age to purchase tobacco products rises from 18 to 21 nationwide

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In December, President Trump signed a $1.4 trillion spending package that included a provision to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. The change applies to all tobacco products, including cigars and e-cigarettes. The FDA also announced on Thursday that it is banning fruit and mint flavors in cartridge-based e-cigarettes.

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this change is already in effect, making it illegal for retailers to sell tobacco products to individuals under the age of 21. The FDA said, “because the change simply increased the age limit in existing law, it was able to go into effect immediately.”

This abrupt change has been a surprise for customers and retailers in states that had not already raised the age to purchase tobacco products. For some tobacco and vape shops, individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 comprise a significant portion of their clientele. Not only will this change reduce their revenue, but it erodes at adults’ individual liberty in the name of public health and safety.

In Maine, the legal age to purchase tobacco products was raised to 21 in July 2018. Former Governor Paul LePage vetoed that legislation but it was overridden by the legislature. In his veto message, he said he was concerned about the legislature “social engineering” legal adults.

While the new federal policy is well-intentioned, it unnecessarily burdens individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 who want to purchase tobacco and do not sell it to minors. According to the FDA, more than 94 percent of retailers in Maine and 87 percent nationwide complied with laws that prevent the sale of tobacco to minors.

In addition, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveys show that tobacco use is only slightly higher than alcohol consumption among high school students. In 2017, 30 percent of high school students said they had consumed some amount of alcohol, 14 percent binge drank, six percent drove and 17 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol within the past 30 days. In 2019, approximately 31 percent of high school students reported that they were currently using a tobacco product.

From this data, it is clear that the age requirement to purchase alcohol does not inhibit high school students from drinking. Therefore, there is little reason to believe raising the age nationwide will prevent or sharply reduce underage tobacco consumption.

Further, there are several other activities individuals are allowed to do once they become legal adults. Here is a list of things that individuals can do when they turn 18:

  • Indebt themselves to the US government and various banks for student loans
  • Serve in the United States military
  • Get married or divorced
  • Make major decisions about medical treatment
  • Vote for candidates and ballot measures that affect themselves and fellow citizens

Why should the government have the ability to stop individuals from purchasing tobacco while also being able to send them into combat zones to make the ultimate sacrifice? The negative effects of using tobacco products are widely known and accepted by those who make the choice to use those products. If these individuals are not aware of the consequences, each product is required to contain health warnings that provide information to the user.

The government should not legislate measures to socially engineer its population. The ability for an individual to go to McDonalds and order a Double Quarter Pounder, smoke cigarettes and drink Big Gulp sodas — while harmful to one’s health — is a sign of freedom and individual liberty.

When the government begins to legislate these freedoms away, the result is a nanny state, whose policies are overbearing and infringe on the right of individuals to decide what is best for themselves.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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