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Raising age to legally buy tobacco promotes disrespect of the law

All in One Smoke Shop in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood has lost business since Chicago last year changed the tobacco buying age from 18 to 21. General manager Cody Rector talks on Sept. 25, 2017, about the change at the Edgewater shop. (Lou Foglia / Chicago Tribune)

As a public health professional, I have to disagree with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board and break ranks from those of my more orthodox public health colleagues who would have us legislate 21 as the minimum age for legal access to tobacco (“Tobacco at 21,” Feb. 20). I am very consistent about this because I feel exactly the same way about the legal age of 21 for alcohol consumption. Why?

There is no question that lives may be saved by postponing tobacco consumption as well as alcohol consumption. I am not about to dispute the studies that exist to prove that. However, as with any important social policy that regulates widespread human behavior, there is more to consider.

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During the 20th century in this country, 18 became the legal age of adulthood for most practical purposes: legal capacity to enter into contracts, write wills, electoral capacity to vote, capacity to be held criminally responsible as an adult, and, perhaps most significantly, the minimum age at which most men and women could be sent into military battle and put their lives on the line.

To come now and say to young adults that “you are old enough now to do all the above adult activities, except drink alcohol and smoke tobacco products” borders on the absurd. It is absurd for three principal reasons: First, it is almost impossible to enforce in any meaningful way. Witness the binge drinking on college campuses and the black market for cigarettes, by way of example. Secondly, it devalues and ignores the power of responsible socialization of young adults to drink and smoke in moderation and without endangering themselves and others. And third, because it breeds disrespect and eventually contempt for the law. I also happen to be a legal professional, and this last reason is most persuasive to me about why we should not legislate the drinking and smoking age at 21 for persons who are adults for most other practical purposes at 18.

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We are currently in an era — intensified just this past year — where respect for the law is under constant and high-level official challenge. Saying that young adults from 18 through 20 should not be legally capable of drinking or smoking just reinforces that negative challenge and contributes to the risk to our entire political and legal system.

Art Cohen, Baltimore

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