In a close vote, Suffolk County voted to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21. Currently, the age to purchase in Nassau County is 19, and the legal age to purchase tobacco will soon be going up to 21 in New York City. Lawmakers seem to believe banning substances is the proper step to stop teens from smoking, drinking and finding even stronger (and more dangerous) substances to use. However, it is clear through patterns we have seen in history, and even among friend groups, that the laws only promote crime and an illegal black market.
In an email, Legislator Tom Cilmi explained why he voted no on the proposition, saying “Second, smoking has been on the decline for years. In fact, experts say that only around 15% of high school students smoke. In contrast, anecdotal research tells me that more than 60% of high school students drink alcohol, despite the fact that for years it has been illegal for those under twenty one to purchase alcohol. Additionally, people get their hands on pills, heroin and pot, despite the illegality of using those products. Clearly, laws have not worked with those vices.”
I could not have phrased this any better. In areas where we put stigma on certain actions and constantly try to ban and make substances illegal, the net effect appears to be increasing the demand in a form the government cannot control.
Rather than taking a conservative approach in making substances harder to purchase, it is important to realize that teenagers are responsible for themselves. If someone wants to smoke, they will find a way to get their hands on tobacco. However, lawmakers should not be responsible for pushing teenagers into dangerous situations to obtain these “vices.” Cilmi himself does not smoke, but realizes that a law will not change who will consume tobacco, just who has immediate access to purchase it.
The answer to getting teens to quit is through education, as well as removing the stigma from these substances. Just like the story of the forbidden fruit, teenagers will flock towards things that are not easily accessible to them because of the “coolness factor.” When the United States entered a period of prohibition from 1920-1933, the rise in crime was immense and so was the rise of a black market to support contraband. We have a War on Drugs because the country refuses to see that its own policies are what creates the violence and demand within the country. For a country that loves capitalism, it is interesting that it refuses to cash in on the legalization of many substances that would only lead to revenue for states, as well as a system to control substances properly.
Legislator DuWayne Gregory voted to raise the age, and in his response, stated “I voted the way that I did because I felt it was in the best interests of public health to do so.” Gregory went on to say that public health is more important than making a profit. Though I do agree with this, I believe there are times where creating roadblocks through legislation can damage public health. Not all laws are beneficial. We have seen that very clearly through the U.S. stance on drugs and other substances. However, public health will only be benefitted when lawmakers realize that the answer to solving issues related to drugs does not come from the banning of substances. Sometimes, the best way to beat stigmas and break down the culture of obsessing for drugs is to make them easily and readily available.
There are no stigmas attached to taking Advil for a headache. Why? Because we have grown up with the idea that Advil, and other painkillers in the same class of drug, are okay to take. Pill popping, in this case, is great. We pay less attention to the medicine and tend to abuse it less in comparison to other stronger drugs, like heavy narcotics. Our answer should be education, awareness, acceptance and openness. By growing up around the freedom to purchase items, such as tobacco, teenagers won’t see these items as a tool to feel “cool.”
Though this law has been passed, I hope lawmakers in the future can realize it is only beneficial to the next generations to create laws to break stigmas. Breaking down these social barriers is the only way to find the solutions to creating a healthier population.