The Criminal Justice Implications of Raising the Tobacco Age to 21
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Commentary

The Criminal Justice Implications of Raising the Tobacco Age to 21

Do we really want to give 20-year-olds criminal records for vaping?

President Donald Trump recently signed a bill that bans the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21. USA Today reports: 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially changed the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.The new minimum age applies to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges.

The provision came as part of a $1.4 trillion spending package signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20, which amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which also included $1.4 billion reserved for building the U.S.-Mexico border wall and $25 million for gun violence research.

In a recent interview on Cheddar, the streaming news network, I criticized this law raising the minimum age to buy tobacco.

“If you are able to fight in a war, you shouldn’t have any restrictions on what you put into your body. And the consequences of that kind of freedom, I am relatively indifferent about, to be honest,” I said. 

I didn’t have the opportunity to elaborate on that opinion in the limited time during the interview, so it is worth doing so here.

Understand, I don’t mean that I would be enthusiastic about more people consuming a product that has caused more premature deaths than nearly any other product on the planet, but adults should be able to choose what they put in their own bodies. What I fear the most about raising the tobacco age are the criminal justice implications of adding another government rule to the ‘you’re-not-quite-an-adult-yet’ age group of people who are 18- to 20-years-old.

Since the United States raised the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, millions of Americans have been unfairly subjected to the criminal justice system via enforcement of underage drinking laws.

Consider my own personal experience: I drank every year I was in college, long before I was 21 so for much of that time it was illegal to do so. I’m not alone. Most young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 disobey the law and drink alcohol. I was lucky enough to not run into legal consequences. But there are many less fortunate young adults who get caught with alcohol and often have to deal with having a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

Do we really want to give 20-year-olds criminal records for vaping?

If the federal government believes e-cigarettes and vaping, which drove this policy, are so dangerous that they must be prohibited until age 21, then maybe it is time for Congress to consider if joining the military is also too dangerous for those same people under the age of 21. 

Jacob James Rich is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.