Garrett Gunter Headshot

On Dec. 20, 2019, President Trump signed a bill into law covering a vast array of topics, including a regulation raising the purchase age for nicotine products. Almost overnight, millions of college students and young people were surprised to find the legal purchase age of nicotine products raised from 18 to 21. While states had 180 days to implement rules to enforce the new law after President Trump signed it, North Carolina quickly responded to the federal decree a few days later, and by Dec. 28, those under 21 could not purchase tobacco products from most reputable outlets.

With a majority citing the health risks associated with cigarette smoking, vaping and chewing tobacco, the law has support from citizens and politicians on both sides of the aisle. The law was largely motivated by federal studies which showed that many high school students younger than 18 used vape and tobacco products by having siblings or friends older than 18 purchase them. This, combined with growing concerns about the perceived mitigated health risks of vapes versus conventional smoking and increased usage among young adults 18 to 21, motivated the change.

With at least 21% of college students in 2018 vaping on a regular basis, many young people are irritated with the new law. While passage of this law will marginally reduce the number of young people using nicotine products, a number of drawbacks accompany passage of this legislation. One article details the struggle a small vape shop owner will experience, as one-fourth of his customer base was adults younger than 21. From an economic perspective, this law will present a challenge for convenience stores, small smoke shops and other businesses selling tobacco products.

One must also consider the bootleg alternatives sure to hit the market, the costly litigation associated with noncompliance, the hotly contested constitutionality of federally legislating an obviously state issue, and the concern that this law infringes upon the rights of young adults. The argument concerning personal liberty and how the law fits into a justice system, considering 18 is the legal age of majority, is most compelling.

Self-ownership and individual rights form the backbone of Western civilization; our nation was founded upon the notion of individualism, and nearly every struggle in American history has dealt with who would have set individual rights as well as how these would manifest themselves. The classical Western texts and our own Constitution clearly explain why governments ought not to regulate the behavior of private citizens whenever they do not infringe upon the rights of others; however, raising the purchase age to 21 does precisely this. Barring secondhand smoke exposure, which was mostly addressed with laws prohibiting indoor smoking, the only person harmed whenever someone vapes or smokes is the person smoking or vaping.

The United States no longer has a consistent age of majority. Once someone turns 18, he or she is said to be a legal adult and experiences liberty to do a number of things, such as enlisting in the armed forces, taking out a loan for a car, signing his or her own lease, financing student loans, obtaining healthcare, and voting. Eighteen-year-olds can be held liable for all civil lawsuits and are always considered full-blown adults when tried in court. Therefore, why should 18-year-olds not be able to determine whether or not tobacco use is worth the risk?

If the Trump administration is justified in its attempt to prevent individuals from doing unhealthy things, why not ban tobacco for everyone, as well as other potentially harmful and unnecessary activities, such as eating processed sugar, eating saturated fat, watching television, drinking alcohol, and unnecessary automobile travel? While a silly question, the answer is quite clear: Adults should be allowed to weigh the risks and rewards of potentially harmful activities themselves. It follows that if 18-year-olds are expected to act like adults, then we should be given the associated liberties.