Our liberty as citizens and our respect as members of society are threatened by the latest proposed legislation in the Connecticut General Assembly. I speak on behalf of all 18- to 20-year-olds, whom the proposed law would prohibit from buying cigarettes. Most efforts to reduce smoking among young people and the general population are laudable, but this latest attempt is ignominious. The rights of adults in a free society are not to be tampered with for the sake of “saving” one from oneself.
We all accept that, as part of a society, we do not have completely unfettered liberty. We accept laws in these cases when they constrain individuals’ actions that would or could harm other people.
Laws like those prohibiting minors from smoking are also generally accepted because a certain level of paternalism and protection is reasonable for children. While parents should probably be making those decisions instead of the government, I acknowledge that some parents don’t fill their roles well, and that argument can live to fight another day.
I am not an advocate of smoking. I unreasonably chastise my friends for smoking, when I wouldn’t criticize almost any other personal decisions, and won’t smoke myself. Nevertheless, individual adults have the right to make decisions for themselves, even if they may harm themselves. The dangers of smoking are well known. One would be deaf and blind to be a smoker today without knowing the health effects and cigarettes’ addictive properties.
Eighteen-, 19- and 20-year-olds are adults by any reasonable standards. There are the obvious examples of their adulthood: They can vote, they can marry and they can die in war overseas. But the broader picture of the age group is even more informative.
A majority of the student body is under 21 at any given time, yet it is hardly a campus of children. Students live independently physically and, for some, financially. While at Yale, they tutor children and work in the community. In their summers, these young adults make money for some of the biggest corporations in the world and help elect candidates for state and national office.
My Yale examples should be illustrative, but shouldn’t suggest that one has to do these things to be an adult. Students at Gateway Community College have proved themselves just as much adults. They have made the decision to pursue further education, often at their own cost. They take up jobs to pay the bills and many live in their own apartments.
In short, 18- to 20-year-olds do as much as any adult, because they are adults.
The fact that cigarettes are harmful gives the government no special right to prohibit their use. We face situations every day that can have negative impacts on our health or life. While no friend of liberty could propose this, if one were really concerned about the lives of young adults, one would ban them from getting in cars instead of from smoking, as motor vehicle accidents are far and away the leading killer of older teenagers and young adults. Even legislating away all our liberties would not make us completely safe. Some people freely choose to smoke, and from it they get some benefit, which is not for government to deny them.
The saddest thing about this law, if it were passed, would be that it passed even though 18- to 20-year-olds can vote. Although they may be but a small proportion of the electorate, they are constituents who can demand at the ballot box that their rights be respected. One would hope young adults would rally against this bill if its passing seems likely. But one would also hope the same young adults would demand other denied liberties, such as restoring the drinking age to 18. Without a doubt, the arguments above are just as compelling for this cause.
In fact, if underage drinking is to be a guide, this proposed law’s effectiveness would be embarrassing. Such embarrassment would be miniscule, though, compared to how shameful the law’s encroachment on liberty would be.
Nevertheless, we live in a nation where paternalism is often legislated, and where our concern for liberty is often only skin-deep. If older adults can be subject to paternalistic laws, young adults — with their ballot-box apathy — are even more vulnerable.
Fellow young adults, smokers or not, our liberties in this society must be guarded more carefully than those of most other groups. This proposed law should be offensive to everyone. Lawmakers, your concern for our health is not touching. Leave our liberties alone.
Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His regular column appears on alternate Tuesdays.