By Rocco Lucente
A law that has recently gone into effect across the county has banned the sale of tobacco for anybody under the age of 21.
A 9-5 April vote made the change law, and adults across Tompkins County who have been deemed mature enough to vote for every elected office and even die for their country have been deemed not mature enough to purchase tobacco. Tobacco is, of course, a legal product that the youngest generation are rejecting at an unprecedented rate, more than any of the generations deeming them not mature enough to make this choice.
There are many arguments against the tobacco sales ban, probably the strongest one is that by the time a person is 18 they have generally already made the choice of whether or not to smoke. The average smoker is 13 years old when they start, meaning that the battle surrounding smoking prevention is one which is largely fought outside of the boundaries of legal tobacco sales.
There is an argument that says you will reduce the number of cigarettes being sold to kids by increasing the age of sale, however I hardly think that someone who is so morally troubled at 18 that they sell cigarettes to children is going to grow a conscience by 21. The prevalence of illegal drugs in the community alone demonstrates that mere prohibition of sale to 18- to 20-year-olds will do little to reduce youth smoking. This will simply expand the black market and create more opportunities for criminals to interact with young adults, something which may lead to expanded use of dangerous illegal drugs.
Cigarettes are an awful addiction which can destroy lives, and there is no point in denying this simple fact. That being said, cigarettes are predominantly used by people from lower class backgrounds and as such a ban on sales from within the county is a regressive measure that harms the poor the most. Anybody who has been around a truly addicted smoker knows that they will drive to a neighboring county to buy cigarettes if that is what they are forced to do, and this creates expenses that the poorest among us simply cannot afford to bear.
For too long we have responded to the fact that millions of people choose to smoke cigarettes by increasing the cost of smoking through taxes and regulation, a perverse strategy of harm infliction upon the poorest among us. Local government should seek to implement harm reduction measures surrounding addiction, and we’ve seen that sentiment pushed by many in relation to the heroin crisis. Why do we decide to use harm reduction with one group of addicts and punish the other with regressive policies which harm them?
There is also a basic truth about the role of local government that needs to be stated. Local government is here to make sure that the community is planned in a manner consistent with the values of local citizens. The role of local government is to maintain stable and well-functioning neighborhoods, to maintain roads and utilities, and to keep the area attractive to investors. It is not to police our personal habits, it is not to tell business owners who they can sell their products to, and it is not to enact social policy.
The members of the Legislature are valued members of our community, but it is not their role to tell the young men and women of Tompkins County what is best for them. That is the role of the individual, as well as their family and friends.
Planning to ensure that young people are not caught by the trap of cigarette smoking is an important goal for any community, and I would certainly never suggest that we shouldn’t try to reduce smoking among the youth. That being said, punishing current smokers for doing something that is not against the law by placing unreasonable barriers in front of them will not reduce smoking and it will increase the stresses on a population of smokers which is not typically affluent.
Non-coercive methods need to be the goal for local government in this situation, not furthering the creation of separate classes of adults based on age. I encourage voters who go to the polls in November to see how their legislator voted on this issue and respond accordingly.
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Rocco Lucente lives in the Town of Ulysses.
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