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Editorial: No smoking until you’re 21? It’s logical, but let’s first define personal responsibility

Let’s define adulthood and just what it means in the context of legislative law.
Under most definitions of the law, at 18-years-olds are considered adults. You can legally marry; join the military and go off to war; many banks will allow you to get a loan to buy a house or other major purchases, like buying a car (if you have adequate equity and income); and, at present, you can smoke cigarettes.
A bill going through the Vermont Legislature would change that latter point. House bill, H.93, would require Vermonters to be 21 before legally taking that first puff of a cigarette. You can still go to war, buy a car or a house, and get married, but don’t toke on that ciggy. The House passed the bill by a 75-68 vote, and had its third reading on Wednesday. If it passes the House, it goes to the Senate.
Oh, the long arm of big government.
Such righteousness; such good intent. And such ill will it would engender, if passed.
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Specifically, the law would phase-in the 21-year-old limit over the next three years. As of January 2019, the legal age would be 21.
The law would also increase the tax per pack of cigarettes by 39-cents to $3.47.
The law’s purpose, of course, is to promote better public health. Physicians across the state and country will tell you that teenagers get hooked on smoking while young, develop an addiction, and have trouble quitting smoking much of their lives; all while suffering the all-too-obvious health affects ranging from compromised lung capacity to lung cancer.
Smoking is, without a doubt, a known killer. Statistics suggest that 31,500 Vermonters under age 18 today will become addicted to tobacco, and of those one-third will die of tobacco-related illnesses.
The logic of the bill makes sense. If one of the roles of the state or federal government is to protect its citizens (and, after all, many Americans adamantly demand that government protect them from terrorist), then is it not OK for the state to protect its citizens from drugs that produce deadly effects when used?
Surely that is so, and laws are in place to prevent use of other drugs, like alcohol, until the age of 21. In truth, from a health perspective and from a common-sense perspective, the law makes sense. And to that point, Hawaii voted to raise the smoking age to 21 last year, and California passed a similar bill earlier this year. Is it the new trend that will sweep the country?
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It is a legitimate question. But at what point are Vermonters and Americans to be considered adults? When does individual responsibility take hold?
If you are old enough to buy a house or a car, or get married, or go off to war, then surely you are old enough to make your own decision whether or not to buy a pack of cigarettes. But then the same question should apply to buying a pint of beer or glass of wine. Eighteen should be that age.
What this country needs to work on is developing ways that enable America’s and Vermont’s teens to make smarter choices earlier in life. They need insightful sex education early on to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to limit sexual diseases; they need vocational and academic career paths spelled out earlier in their middle and high school years so graduation from secondary schools have a more defined purpose and career track; they need better education on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs and a social environment that tolerates use in a controlled and socially acceptable way — not with fear, taboo and extreme punishment, but with tolerance, understanding and moderation. In short, we need a less Puritanical approach to life in which the fear of god and punishment is the motivating force on human behavior. Rather, we need a culture in which human behavior is guided by logic and commonsense.
But who’s kidding whom? That probably won’t happen anytime soon, so we’ll have to accept an imperfect system.
We opt for the imperfect world that preaches moderation and good choices through education at an earlier age, not using the long arm of the law to impose unreasonable mandates. If 18 is the right age to be considered an adult, then let’s push for a society and culture that teaches the ills and benefits (if any) of drugs so that 18-year-olds make good choices and learn that personal responsibility has consequences as well as rewards.
Angelo S. Lynn

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