Last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he would sponsor legislation to raise the legal age to buy tobacco in every state from 18 to 21 years old — an idea we believe will go up in smoke.
We beg to differ with the senator’s belief that lifting the age by three years would eliminate tobacco and vaping device usage among high schoolers, which nationwide is currently at 8.8%.
Even though the legal age to purchase alcohol is 21 in the United States — and any state that lowers the legal drinking age will lose 10% of its federal highway funding — that hasn’t stopped teens from getting their hands on it for generations. In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that nearly 60% of teenagers have had at least one drink by age 18.
The same is true for marijuana, which is legal for recreational use for those 21 and older in several states but not Kentucky. And yet, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teenage marijuana use is at its highest level in 30 years and today’s teens are more likely to use pot than tobacco.
While we urge teens not to light up in the first place, we don’t believe raising the legal age to 21 is the answer.
Currently, 12 states have increased or are in the process of changing the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 — Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Illinois, Virginia, Delaware, Washington and Utah, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. While those states have seen drops in teen smoking rates, the same is not true for vaping. In fact, California students reported 17.3% e-cigarette usage, compared to 14.1% of Kentucky teens.
We live in a country where 18 is considered old enough to gamble (with the exception of a handful of states) and 17-year-olds with parental consent can legally join the military, or as one local veteran recently put it, “sign over a blank check to the government.” Raising the legal tobacco age to 21 seems quite a bit like government overreach.