The United States is one of only three developed countries in the world with a nationwide drinking age over 18. The other two countries are Iceland and Japan, which both have a drinking age of 20.
The problem, of course, is that the age of majority—when a minor assumes the legal rights and responsibilities of an adult—is 18 in most states, 19 in two states (Alabama and Nebraska), and 21 in just two states (Colorado and Mississippi). There are generally exceptions for children who are married or have been legally emancipated. In most countries, the age of majority coincides with the drinking age.
So why is the drinking age 21 in the United States?
Before Prohibition (1919), only a handful of states had a drinking age. After the repeal of Prohibition (1933), all of the states gradually established a minimum drinking age, most commonly 21. After the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1971, which prohibited the states from setting their voting age above 18, most states lowered their drinking ages down to 18. But by 1988, every state in the Union had raised its drinking age to 21.
This happened because the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (H.R.4616, P.L. 98-363) mandated that the states raise their drinking ages to 21 or their federal highway funding would be cut by 10 percent beginning in fiscal year 1988.
First alcohol, now tobacco.
Federal law requires states to have a minimum age of 18 for the purchase of tobacco products.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed 53 bills into law last month and vetoed 14 others. But one bill (S-359/A-2320) in particular will live in infamy because it raises the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in New Jersey from 19 to 21. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled legislature by a vote of 53-16 in the Assembly and 23-14 in the Senate. Christie “vetoed a similar plan last year that was opposed by food retailers who feared the loss of potentially millions of dollars in revenue.” The bill, which takes effect on January 1, 2018, also applies to e-cigarettes.
Said Governor Christie:
By raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, we are giving young people more time to develop a maturity and better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be and that it is better to not start smoking in the first place.
My mother died from the effects of smoking, and no one should lose their life due to any addictive substance. Additionally, the less people who develop costly tobacco habits that can cause health problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease and developmental issues, the less strain there will be on our healthcare system.
This makes New Jersey the third state (after Hawaii and California) to raise its tobacco purchase age to 21. Similar bills are pending in Maine and Oregon. Hundreds of cities and counties also have a minimum purchase age of 21. In the states of Alabama, Alaska, and Utah, one must be 19 to purchase tobacco products.
The problem with a minimum age of 21 to purchase tobacco is the same problem with a minimum age of 21 to purchase alcohol: the age of majority is generally 18. This means that a legal adult in the United States who has not turned 21 can buy a gun, enter into binding contracts, vote, sue or be sued, serve on a jury, get a tattoo, marry, engage in consensual sex with other adults, donate plasma, get a credit card, change his name, open a bank account, adopt children, go to jail or prison, work at or go to a strip club, purchase lottery tickets, join the military, be subject to a military draft, purchase fireworks, rent a car or hotel room, and purchase pornography—but not buy a beer or, depending on where one lives, a pack of cigarettes.
And Americans think they live in a free society?
Because alcohol is banned in many Muslim countries and countries like Bhutan ban the sale, cultivation, and production of tobacco, Americans think they live in a free society when the truth is they live in a relatively free society.
Is tobacco unhealthy, deadly, and addictive? Of course it is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is nearly one in five deaths.
- Smoking causes more deaths each year than the following causes combined: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.
- More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States.
- Smoking causes about 90% of all lung cancer deaths. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.
- Smoking causes about 80% of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Cigarette smoking increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.
But the dangers of tobacco use are not the issue. If the dangers were the issue, then the minimum age to purchase tobacco would be raised to 25 or 45 or 65. If the dangers were the issue, then every state in the Union would follow the lead of Bhutan.
It should also be noted that the minimum age to purchase tobacco is usually higher than the minimum age to possess or use tobacco. So, in general, any American 18 or older can legally smoke; he just can’t buy a pack of cigarettes himself.
The issue here is the role of the state. Every state government, just like the federal government, thinks its mission is to protect its citizens from bad habits, vice, unhealthy actions, addictive behavior, and dangerous activity. In a word, to protect people from themselves. In a free society, any legal adult would be able to buy, sell, possess, and use any substance.
A nanny state is incompatible with a free society.