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Our Opinion: Congress steamrolls states, raises tobacco age to 21

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In 1984, Congress used its power of the purse to limit alcohol sales to buyers 21 and up. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act threatened state legislatures with a loss of federal highway funds if they failed to raise the legal purchase age. States fell in line, and 21 became the nationwide standard.

Three and a half decades later, federal lawmakers set their sights on raising the age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. This time, Congress chose coercion over bribery.

Rather than dangling cash to nudge states into compliance, Congress declared 21 the new minimum age to possess tobacco and nicotine products by legislative fiat. Steamrolling states’ regulatory power would seem to violate the 10th Amendment, but courts have allowed such incursions under overly broad interpretations of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

“The Commerce Clause was never intended to give Washington, D.C. the power to determine how old you had to be to buy a cigarette,” said Mike Maharrey, national communications director for the Tenth Amendment Center. “I’ve never understood why people want to invest that kind of monopoly power in a few politicians in Washington.”

Big-government busybodies tacked an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act onto a year-end spending package that sailed through the House on Thursday. The legislation increases the tobacco purchase age to 21 and appropriates $18 million a year through 2024 to implement the change. President Trump is expected to sign the bill.

“Hey, folks, no one said this nanny state was going to be cheap,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, wrote on Twitter.

The restriction passed without resistance thanks to a nationwide panic over teen vaping. Electronic cigarettes and nicotine vaporizers introduced as smoking cessation aids have grown popular with high school-age youths and have been blamed for respiratory injuries and even a handful of deaths, though vape liquids containing non-nicotine additives were used in most fatalities.

This heavy-handed ban is likely to backfire in a big way. Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, writes that teenagers who have a tougher time buying vape devices are more likely to take up traditional smoking.

“Raising the legal purchase age for tobacco and vaping products would encourage young adults to consume more cigarettes, because they are more common and therefore would be more accessible under a ban than the relatively new, smaller supply of vaping materials on the market would be,” Burrus wrote in a Wednesday essay for NBCNews.com.

Public health advocates wringing their hands over the supposed teen vaping epidemic are shortsighted. Vaping has contributed to a decline in teen smoking rates, and the best available research shows vaping to be an unhealthy but less-harmful alternative to combustible cigarettes. Harm reduction principles call for a measured approach, not alarmism.

Champions of personal freedom like Ron Paul, the former Republican congressman from Texas, saw the writing on the wall as Congress tightened restrictions on tobacco a full decade ago.

“As a physician, I understand the adverse health effects of this bad habit,” Paul wrote in 2009. “And that is exactly how smoking should be treated — as a bad habit and a personal choice. The way to combat poor choices is through education and information. Other than ensuring that tobacco companies do not engage in force or fraud to market their products, the federal government needs to stay out of the health habits of free people. Regulations for children should be at the state level.”

We oppose restrictions that dilute 18 as the legal age of majority in the United States. Eighteen-year-olds are adult citizens with full exercise of their constitutional rights and civil liberties. They can vote, marry, execute contracts, purchase property and enlist in the military. Yet their congressional nannies don’t consider them mature enough to make their own decisions when it comes to tobacco.

The tobacco-to-21 law seems like part of a push to extend adolescence and treat 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds like children rather than adults. It dovetails with the misguided campus safety culture that stifles free speech in favor of political correctness at many residential colleges and universities. But it isn’t compatible with American values of liberty and personal responsibility.

Smoking and vaping are bad decisions. Yet they’re choices that young adults should be free to make without government interference.

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