Greene: Cigarettes — a matter of public health or personal freedom?

(Volver Avanzar/Flickr)

I’m not a smoker, but that didn’t stop my libertarian senses from rampaging when the Lane County Board of Commissioners raised the minimum tobacco purchasing age to 21.

The issue was not put to a citizen vote or even discussed much in the community prior to passing — it felt like the Man pulled the freedom out from under our pillows while we were sleeping and left a half-assed note behind making vague promises about “public health.”

Concerns for public health made sense when smoking was banned from schools, restaurants and bars, but buying cigarettes to smoke in the comfort of one’s own home seems a lot more like private health to me. It is right to protect children from their decisions; we are training them to our ideals. But once adulthood hits the training is over, and the government should not have any say on personal health matters. If Americans can choose to go to war at 18, then they should be able to light up.

But this is about more than the blatant degradation of rights — it’s about the injustice of allowing an addiction to grow and then punishing the population for it.

Sure, studies have shown that raising the smoking age will gradually decrease the amount of smokers, and logic dictates that taking tobacco purchasing rights away from 18-year-old seniors will keep it out of high schools, yada, yada.

The fact is, nine out of 10 cigarette smokers take their first drag before 18.

17 year olds who have been smoking in Lane County for years already are not going to quit, they just now have to wait not one, but four years before they can buy their own pack. Worse yet, 19 and 20 year olds who have been legally smoking for years are now going to be turned away at the counter.

It’s one thing for the government to limit smoking, but giving people free range to an addictive substance and then taking it away after they have become dependent will only serve to encourage illegal activities. Nobody expects police to fine a 20-year-old $50 for smoking; that would be outrageous. But often crime is prevented just by the fear of getting caught, and once someone gets away with one crime the next few look more and more inviting. Making a law just for people to break it is inviting a more casual attitude toward crime in general.

A clause that grandfathered in people already 18 when the law passed, letting them continue their purchases, would have helped soften this transition. This would still have cut down on smoking in the long term but made less impact on current smokers. This clause was proposed, but unfortunately not added.

With our freedoms under attack, 20 year olds suddenly being treated like children and the possibility of this law going state-wide, I was expecting protest. I was waiting to hear complaints in the hall, perhaps mini-riots at parties and rage-quitting in the drugstore. So far, I have been disappointed. Most people seem relatively uninterested or outraged for only a moment before growing bored, and some students are downright supportive of the health initiative.

Still, there is hope that come April 13, when the law is put in place, Lane County citizens will feel the impact and push back against the Man. It might be too late to change the law in Lane County, but our county is the state’s guinea pig and if we can prove that Oregonians won’t let the government trample on our rights, then perhaps Oregon will reconsider going statewide with the measure.

So when April 13 rolls around, make some noise. Call a representative, grab a group of friends and protest smoke by city hall, try to buy a pack and test whether the age limit is enforced, throw something. Stand on something tall, shake your fist high and let the Man know — you can’t tread on us.


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