The Massachusetts Senate recently voted 32-2 in favor of a bill that would raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21.
When it comes to social engineering, politicians often vote in packs, and since tobacco is such an easy target and so seemingly simple a vote, the margin came as no surprise. Nor will it shock anyone when the House follows suit and Gov. Charlie Baker signs some new legislation into law.
Should the bill survive in roughly the form the Senate approved, regulations will be extended to cover electronic cigarettes, and pharmacies will be required to phase out their sales of all tobacco products.
I’m sure the senators are sincere in their actions and truly believe further regulations will reduce the number of people who smoke in Massachusetts, prevent youth from picking up the deadly habit, and cut health care costs.
I’m equally sure their actions will have almost no effect.
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The reality is we Americans have already legislated our way along just about every tobacco road that exists. We’ve raised taxes far beyond the point at which economics suggests individuals will change their behavior. We’ve banned cigarette advertising in print, and on TV and radio – although not online. We’ve tried graphic warning labels.
And who among us hasn’t watched a friend or family member ruin their health and cut their life short because of tobacco?
Yet, about one in five Americans continues to smoke, and at least 400,000 Americans die every year from tobacco-related illness. The toll on our national health and the financial impact on our health care system is truly incalculable.
So what are we to do?
I propose we do nothing further to restrict smoking, and instead focus our efforts on education. Not tobacco education, mind you, but general education. The kind found in our elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.
Spread knowledge. Raise literacy rate. Promote access to libraries, books, language courses, vocational training and retraining for workers who want to change careers.
I say this because when you look at maps that show smoking rates and education levels, state by state, the clearest correlations are these: Where there is greater ignorance, higher poverty levels and poorer educational systems, there are relatively more smokers. Where there is education and wealth, opportunity and jobs, there will be relatively fewer smokers.
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Massachusetts, a state known for its technology and education, has a smoking rate of about 18 percent, lower than the national average. States such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi have smoking rates higher than the national average, along with higher rates of poverty.
We can continue to blame Big Tobacco for its insidious advertising campaigns. We can blame the tobacco-growing states and their very low tobacco taxes. We can blame the physiology of addiction.
But the real problem is human nature. Some of us just aren’t very smart, and are going to continue to do really stupid, dangerous and harmful things to ourselves in spite of all the evidence. Smoking is one of those things.
Yes, I realize that many bright and highly educated people smoke. That hipster youth vape. That some adults who hate cigarettes indulge in an occasional cigar. And that millions of you have tried repeatedly to quit and just couldn’t do it.
But this isn’t about individuals. It’s about trends and the long-term evolution of our society.
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In 1577, Nicholas Monardes produced a medicinal treatise that extolled the virtues of the plants to be found in the New World. As Louis B. Wright wrote in “The Cultural Life of the American Colonies,” “Monardes commended tobacco as a cure-all for every ailment from worms to toothache …”
English merchant John Frampton gave Monardes’ work prominence by adding this title: “Joyful News out of the New Found World Wherein Is Declared the Rare and Singular Virtues of Diverse and Sundry Herbs, Trees, Oils, Plants, and Stones, with Their Applications, as well for Physic as Chirurgery, the Said Being Well Applied Bringeth Such Present Remedy for All Diseases, as May Seem Altogether Incredible.”
Well, that was 1577.
More than 400 years later, we know for certain that there is no joyful news about tobacco. It’s not going to put an end to your troubles. It’s going to put an end to your breathing.
Americans who fail to act on that knowledge are likely to die sooner, more painfully, and more expensively than necessary. Nothing government does is going to make any further difference. The choice of life or death lies with you, and no one else.