Tobacco 21 is a victory but the war isn’t over

In the last two weeks of 2019, as part of its spending bill Congress raised the national minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21. This is a big score. Studies show that raising the age to 21 reduces smoking. But it is important in two other ways. First, by raising the age at the national level states and cities will no longer need to do so, which means the tobacco industry will be denied its goal of achieving preemptive clauses. Preemption forbids state and local jurisdictions from passing laws, and it has been the number one goal of the industry for decades. Altria (Philip Morris) has been running ads calling for T21 in all states, where it had hoped for preemption and a much-needed boost to its image. Second, this Act shows that Congress is capable of meaningful legislation on tobacco issues, something that has been almost entirely lacking for a decade.

But it is not yet time for high-fives and locker room celebrations. Let’s look at a couple of sobering facts. Even when the age of purchase was 18, nearly all smokers started while minors – they found ways to get tobacco. And they will still find ways. The vast majority of adult smokers were addicted as children, which negates any concept of “adult consent,” even if you believe it is ethically possible for an adult to consent to addiction.

Which leads to the second caveat. The T21 bill reinforces yet again that nicotine addiction, leading to disease and early death, is perfectly acceptable for adults. It is not. Selling a product that kills is immoral, as is selling products that are intentionally addictive. Selling a product that is both is reprehensible and unacceptable. The tobacco epidemic will not end until we end the cause – the tobacco industry.

The tobacco 21 law will help reduce smoking, which in turn makes phasing out the sale of tobacco products more politically feasible. It is a welcome development, and Congress members can take a deserved bow. But we can’t be complacent. ASH and its allies all over the world won’t run a victory lap until we achieve a complete victory and tobacco is no longer a commercial product.