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Friday, April 16, 2021

Opinion

Smoking bans pose constitutional questions


Our nation’s war on smokers is reaching a fast climax.

Lawmakers in New York City approved measures on Wednesday to raise the legal age of tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. It’s the most stringent criterion in any American city.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been waging a battle on public fumes for some time, from pushing to curb public inhalation to similar efforts at striking the age at which New Yorkers begin smoking. He’s been mostly successful.

The New York Times detailed the opinion of Democratic assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal of Manhattan: “He had other battles that he wanted to win before the end of his term, things he can accomplish in the next couple of months,” she said.

Whether to take on “the long, drawn-out battle” entailed by a display ban, she added, will be up to his successor.

The age requirement for smoking in most states is 18, but some have pushed it to a year later. The increase is almost always accomplished only after months of pushing from the parties concerned, and the variables underlying the decisions made almost always extend past health concerns alone — the political climate in the districts at hand, the popularity of the entities proposing the notion and the political involvement among those whom the bill would be most likely to impact.

Most of the time, it’s pretty nil.

As a nod toward public health, it’s an obviously beneficial move. Tobacco causes cancer. That’s non-negotiable. Alternatives to cigarette cartons may be less overtly detrimental to passersby — from chewing tobacco to electronic light-ups — but they, too, have their downside. They kill you.

“This is literally legislation that will save lives,” Council speaker Christine C. Quinn said shortly before the bill passed 35 to 10.

And it might. But it raises the question of limits: At what point does a ban reach its climax? James Calvin, the president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, argued that the incidental ban on cigarettes can only give way to further, more malicious bans.

Constitutionality becomes an issue when young people are asked to lay their lives on the line as defenders of public health despite their own inability to purchase a pack of smokes. It sets the chain for a double standard. It sets a precedent that’ll be hard to contain.

Then again, there are simpler reasons for skepticism. Moments before the final vote, Nicole Spencer, 16, was in Union Square in Manhattan with a cigarette wedged between her fingers. Her verdict?

“I don’t think that’s going to work.”

Senior staff columnist Bryan Washington is an English junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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