Tobacco 21: Can government mollycoddling go too far? 

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The idea of raising the minimum tobacco sales age from 18 to 21 is gaining rapid momentum across the United States. This measure, called Tobacco 21, is already the law in 12 states and is soon to go into effect in six more. The main logic behind this policy change is to use the power of the state to prevent an individual from starting a bad habit. 

Statistically, this makes a lot of sense. 94% of adult smokers had their first cigarette before the age of 21 and many of these early smokers are suppliers of tobacco products for friends and family younger than 18. Like a mother hen, the government is taking a proactive step to ensure that young people don’t make experimentation with smoking into an addiction.  

There is also a legal precedent to this. A national sales age of 21 for alcohol consumption reduced drunk-driving cases, alcohol dependence and alcohol consumption nationwide. The hope that Tobacco 21 will have similar effects is understandable. 

However, another policy decision by the government to “protect public health” can have troubling consequences. For example, this move showcases an insidious double standard: How can we ask 18-year-olds to risk their lives in battle when we don’t even trust their judgement to buy a pack of cigarettes? After all, both scenarios—fighting in a war and getting addicted to cigarettes—could potentially have the same deplorable result. This form of invasive choice regulation is dangerous because the government has, yet again, failed to discuss the capabilities and rights of young adults. 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their pioneering book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness,’ explore an interesting alternative to a policy change like Tobacco 21. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that behavioral science can be used to modify individual actions so as to guide people to make better decisions. Placing the salad bar first in a school canteen or asking people to ‘opt-out’ of the organ-donation system tends to produce outcomes that are beneficial for society as a whole. This can help avoid the pitfalls of traditional regulation, such as ineffective campaigning, costly procedures and sudden losses for companies.  

Rather than instituting an outright ban, the authors would suggest that the government preserve freedom of choice by using nudges to modify behaviors in welfare-enhancing directions, without imposing any limits on available choices. For example, a ‘smoking stigma’ is reinforced to smokers when they are asked to not smoke in shared spaces. This is often seen by smokers as a subtle reminder that they are engaging in ‘antisocial’ acts. In addition to this, the negative effects of smoking are stamped in America’s collective conscience because the public has been constantly educated through large-scale media campaigns since 1970. These strategies have clearly worked because cigarette smoking among U.S adults has come to an all-time low

The Nudge theory, also known as libertarian paternalism, lies in an ethical gray area. Many argue that the semblance of choice offered to citizens is merely an illusion, because people rarely think through their decisions properly. There is also debate about whether the government should decide what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to public health and individual actions. 

In the future, research into the effective applications of libertarian paternalism in public health interventions could yield some surprising alternatives to policy changes like Tobacco 21. Until then, we must accept that the government has made the choice for us, and hope that the reduction in tobacco usage across the country makes up for the right that we have lost. 


Nidhi J. Nair is a contributor for The Daily Campus. They can be reached via email at nidhi_jayakumar@uconn.edu.

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