Smoking age at 21? Wrong question

National data released earlier this year showed the incidence of retailers selling tobacco to minors had increased by more than a half-percent in the last year. That doesn’t sound like much, but it warns of slippage in the hard-fought gains to reduce tobacco sales to minors and to lower the share of teens who start smoking.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson has proposed legislation to combat this trend by raising the legal smoking age to 21. A group of state lawmakers – led by Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall of Des Moines in the House and Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way – is co-sponsoring legislation based on his request.

There is a good case to be made for making it harder for teens to obtain cigarettes by restricting the ability of 18-year-olds, who may still be in high school, to buy tobacco. This also would limit the ability of mature-looking 16-year-olds to pass themselves off as being of legal age.

But this may be a case of chasing after solutions to one problem without looking at a broader context. What, after all, is the age of majority – and what do we mean by that?

Shouldn’t there be more consistency across the board in our societal expectations for when young people become adults? We think the debate ought to start there before we add to a patchwork of laws. For example, we have sent 18-year-olds to serve in combat, and die, in Mideast wars, and we let 18-year-olds vote, but our national drinking age is 21 and now we’re starting to see variation on the age for smoking and gambling.

Raising the age for cigarette usage to 21 suggests we don’t think older teens are capable of making adult decisions about their own health and safety.

Other states are considering legislation similar to Ferguson’s. A growing list of cities has raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes. At the same time, some states in recent years have considered lowering their drinking age.

Opponents of Ferguson’s proposal – Senate Bill 5494 and House Bill 1458 – may argue that it’s too early to say for sure whether raising the legal age deters 16-year-olds from starting to smoke. There’s not much data yet from places like New York City and Hawaii County that have raised the age.

But a special concern is raised by a report this year from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says 10 percent of high school students report trying electronic cigarettes. That is more than double the rate from a year before. Electronic cigarettes are often candy flavored, and thus attractive to kids. They may contain nicotine levels that far exceed ordinary cigarettes, which could addict people more quickly and intensely.

Although state law bars sales of tobacco vapor products to those under 18, the government could do more to deter marketing geared to minors.

Our nation has made great progress since the landmark 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that smoking kills people. We need to do everything we can to discourage tobacco addiction. But we also need better consensus on when people become adults, and what decisions people should have the right to make at what age.