Is California’s New Bill to Raise Legal Smoking Age to 21 an Overstep of Power? - Law Blog

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Is California’s New Bill to Raise Legal Smoking Age to 21 an Overstep of Power?

California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that raises the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. The bill was introduced as a measure that would reduce adolescent tobacco addiction and, in the long run, save lives.  

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 90% of tobacco users started smoking before they reached the age of 21 and 80% smoking before the age of 18. The goal of the new legislation is to prevent smoking at a younger age. Preventing smoking early will prevent addiction later in life, according to supporters.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like raising the minimum smoking age to 21 would make much of a difference since the majority of users started smoking before they reached the age of 18, but consider the fact that 15-and 16-year olds are more likely to be associated with 18-year olds than they are with a 21-year old. Making it harder for young adults to buy tobacco makes it harder for teens to have access to it.

Government Is Essentially Regulating What We Do With Our Bodies

Some have very strong opinions about whether the government should be able to regulate our personal consumption of goods. However, it’s been happening for years and as long as constitutional challenges can be met, these laws will stick because a long history of precedent has already been established when it comes to governmental regulation and our health. Regulating water supply, banning the use of lead paint in homes, and regulating food and beverage products, just to name a few. Ever heard of Roe v. Wade?

Of course you have. That’s the first thought that came to mind when considering governmental regulations that restrict choices of personal autonomy. In the historic case, the Supreme Court found that women have a fundamental right to privacy to do what they want with their bodies. The topic of abortion and extending the legal smoking age are obviously on two different ends of the spectrum, but if you’re not familiar with the analysis of how the Justices came up with that decision, it’s definitely worth noting. Tobacco

The case established that women have the right to make decisions concerning their own bodies, but also established that states have legitimate and compelling interests in 1) protecting a woman’s health and 2) protecting the potentiality of human life. The states interest in the woman’s health and the child’s health only get stronger the longer a woman is pregnant, making their interest more compelling and, therefore, giving them the authority to regulate abortions. Now, only one of those interests is applicable here, but protecting the health and safety of citizens is an important one.

A woman’s decision in this instance is far more personal than any decision of whether or not to use tobacco or consume other goods, but the same principles apply. The question becomes whether or not protecting young adults from the harmful effects of smoking is a compelling enough interest. If the government can find a compelling interest, i.e. tobacco use harms your health, then they get to regulate it.

Does the Government Have Enough of a Compelling Interest?

New York recently tried to ban sugary drinks, like soda, from being sold in anything larger than 16 ounces due to links to high-sugar consumption and obesity, but the state’s highest court eventually struck the ban down. Why is it that smoking and drinking alcohol are so taboo that it seems acceptable to regulate, but when it comes to regulating our soda consumption, that’s what seems outrageous? Is it really any different?

I’ll admit, when I first heard of the soda ban, I thought the idea was ridiculous and definitely an overstep of authority, but, when you think about it, smoking tobacco used to be cool and no one thought anything of it being harmful. It wasn’t until years and years later that the public started to become aware of the actual risks of using tobacco. Maybe we’ll learn sugar is the same, who knows. No one seems to complain about the government restricting lead-based paint.

While the government shouldn’t necessarily be able to regulate whether an adult wants to use tobacco, regulating access to teens doesn’t shock the conscious. If you look purely at statistics on tobacco use, regulating it against young adults makes sense, especially when you consider how addictive it is.

Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in California. With a total of at least 34,000 tobacco-related deaths per year, the Institute of Medicine’s study reflecting a decrease of 200,000 fewer deaths for those born between 2000 and 2019 is enough of a legitimate and compelling reason to back the change.

Don’t get me wrong, regulating soda consumption is a stretch and I’m all for the idea of personal autonomy, but the dangers of tobacco use are well proven enough for the government to meet the constitutional requirements of a compelling health and safety interest. Although California is only the second state to raise the legal smoking age to 21, after Hawaii, many cities have already raised the age limit within their own city limits.


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