The City Council has adopted a proposal that would raise the legal age for purchase of all tobacco products–including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, and cigarillos–to 21 in New York City, the New York Times reports. Mayor Bloomberg has said that he would sign the bill, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is on board.
The proposal provoked some protest among people who pointed out that New Yorkers under 21 can drive, vote and fight in wars, and should be considered mature enough to decide whether to buy cigarettes. But the Bloomberg administration’s argument — that raising the age to buy cigarettes would discourage people from becoming addicted in the first place — won the day.
If you think about it, the idea that New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 20 are able to vote but will be unable to purchase cigarettes is more than strange; it’s actually a little bit non-sensical in a certain way. Think about it this way: the current proposal is a product of the City Council, the members of which are elected by voters, some of whom are between the ages of 18 and 20. This means that 18-20 year olds are apparently not well-informed enough to make decisions about whether or not they should buy tobacco products (which would involve skimming the relevant literature, delving into scientific research, taking a look at the immediate and long-term costs of smoking, and weighing all of that against the personal enjoyment that the receive from the behavior), but they are well-informed enough to elect officials who can decide these things for them.
As Murray Rothbard points out in Power and Market , however, this position suffers from a serious problem:
The “modern democrat” who scoffs at direct democracy on the ground that the people are not intelligent or informed enough to decide the complex issues of government, is caught in…a fatal contradiction: he assumes that the people are sufficiently intelligent and informed to vote on the people who will make these decisions. But if a voter is not competent to decide issues A, B, C, etc., how in the world could he possibly be qualified to decide whether Mr. X or Mr. Y is better able to handle A, B, or C? In order to make this decision, the voter would have to know a great deal about the issues and know enough about the persons whom he is selecting. In short, he would probably have to know more in a representative than in a direct democracy. Furthermore, the average voter is necessarily less qualified to choose persons to decide issues than he is to vote on the issues themselves. For the issues are at least intelligible to him, and he can understand some of their relevance; but the candidates are people whom he cannot possibly know personally and whom he therefore knows essentially nothing about. Hence, he can vote for them only on the basis of their external “personalities,” glamorous smiles, etc., rather than on their actual competence.
Here, Rothbard is discussing what he believes to be a contradiction in the argument for representative democracy above direct democracy, but I think the structure of his point applies nicely to the issue of cigarette smoking in New York. If people can’t be allowed to decide whether they’re going to smoke cigarettes, then how can we say that it is sensible for them to elect officials to decide whether we should smoke cigarettes? The former only requires that they have some knowledge on smoking; the latter requires that they have knowledge on smoking and insight into the personality of the politician in question.
Some might quibble with me and say these are philosophical points, and not fit for a City Council smoking age proposal. I would disagree, but I’ll move on here in favor of what I believe to be more pressing concerns.
Consider what New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn said of the smoking age bill shortly before it passed. “This,” she beamed, “is literally legislation that will save lives.” Although the risks associated with smoking are well-understood and not here in dispute, Quinn’s claim suffers from a blind spot for New York’s history with anti-smoking legislation. As a 2003 Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute found, New York’s efforts to limit smoking through the legislature have resulted in the rise of a massive black market for bootlegged cigarettes that has attracted organized crime like flies to honey.
Perhaps worse than the diversion of money has been the crime associated with the city’s illegal cigarette market. Smalltime crooks and organized crime have engaged in murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery to earn and protect their illicit profits. Such crime has exposed average citizens, such as truck drivers and retail store clerks, to violence.
While politicians in Albany grappled with ways of curbing the illegal cigarette trade during the mid-1970s, the crime associated with it worsened as mobsters waged increasingly bloody battles for control of the city’s cigarette markets. Such turf battles coupled with efforts to silence witnesses resulted in a string of homicides. Meanwhile, the legitimate side of the industry lived under constant threat and was forced to undertake extraordinary security measures. These conditions prompted Paul Curran to testify to Congress that workers were “confronted almost daily with the risks and dangers of personal violence which are now inherent in their industry.” Commenting on the security measures being taken, one New York City Police Detective noted that “many dealerships in the New York area are secured like fortresses and trucks making deliveries are more like armored cars than delivery vans.”
On top of all of that, the report notes, arrests have been made linking smuggled cigarettes to groups like Hezbollah. The proposed legislation may save certain lives (although even that’s not likely, for reasons I’m about to discuss), but in the end it is simply exchanging them for others.
The saddest thing about all of this is its cyclical nature. Politicians, in an effort to increase health through the politically expedient means of scapegoating cigarettes, have clamped down on cigarettes in the past and created a massive black market for their sale. This has subjected citizens to unnecessary violence and done little to mitigate cigarette usage or promote health in general. Then, in an effort to clamp down further, politicians have tried to pass even more stringent restrictions, thus increasing incentives for black marketeers. And it goes around like that in a circle.
At this point, one has to even wonder whether most 18-20 year olds were buying their cigarettes legally anyway. If, as many suspect, they already frequented the black market for their tobacco products–which are of equal quality at far lower prices–then this new law won’t do much to help them anyway.