Thoughts on Hawaii’s 21 Year Old Minimum Smoking Age

Hawaii recently became the first state in the nation to ban smoking for people under the age of 21. While I absolutely despise smoking and can appreciate the public health benefits the law aims to achieve, ultimately I am against this law because it discriminates based on age.

Currently high school seniors who are 18 years old can buy cigarettes, and often sell them or give them to their underage classmates. These underage classmates then start smoking and develop a nicotine addiction, and become lifelong smokers. The core idea behind the new law is that by making it impossible for those 18 year old students to buy cigarettes, their younger classmates will have a harder time obtaining cigarettes, and will therefore be less likely to develop an addiction to nicotine, ultimately leading to a decline in adult smoking rates over time. This seems like a very plausible outcome, and would be a massive public health victory.

However the method in which the law achieves a decline in youth smoking is very disturbing. The law singles out 18, 19, and 20 year old adults and prevents them from engaging in certain commercial transactions. These young adults share the same responsibilities of other older adults but are now subjected to unique restrictions on their rights. They pay taxes, they vote, they perform community service, they serve in the military, they may even have kids of their own. But now in Hawaii a 20 year old adult is unable to buy a pack of cigarettes, even though a 21 year old can - the only reason being that the 20 year old is more likely to illegally funnel cigarettes to children than the 21 year old.

But those are just probabilities. Just because one 20 year olds sell cigarettes to young people doesn’t say anything about all of the other 20 year olds, the vast majority of whom follow the law. How can the state of Hawaii hold an entire age group responsible for the actions of a few? How is this acceptable to put a law into the books that so blatantly discriminates against certain adult’s based simply on their age? Would it be equally acceptable for there to be a maximum smoking age, of say 65? The rationale there is even more compelling since the government pays for the health care of elder Americans, and could save money if they stopped smoking.

Of course the notion of a maximum smoking age is absurd and politically unviable. Old people are organized and vote in huge numbers. They would never allow such a law to come into existence in the first place, but even if such a law did pass they would have a very sympathetic judicial system composed entirely of old people which could overturn such a law. The truth is, our society has made a lot of choices that disrespect young people, and frankly no one really cares. Young people are an easy target, they aren’t organized and don’t have a high propensity to vote. They also quickly become older and soon forget any hardships they faced when they were younger.

It is important to lower smoking rates, but we also have to start treating young adults with more respect. I’m sure raising excise taxes, doing a better job at enforcing the existing laws of cigarette sales to minors, and even just making sure kids can’t smoke on school grounds could all make a difference without also stripping young adults of their rights. While I’m not terribly optimistic, I hope that other states implement these more equitable ways of achieving lower smoking rates than simply banning 18, 19, and 20 year olds from purchasing cigarettes.