Opinion

I beg you not to smoke, but the government shouldn’t tell you not to

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“The science is clear. Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 will save and improve lives.”

This definitive statement was the closing argument in an editorial published Wednesday in the Bangor Daily News.

As is the case virtually any time the words “the science is clear” appear in the middle of a political debate, the “clear science” is not telling you what the authors of the political statement say it is.

In this case, it is certainly true that medical evidence shows us that smoking is harmful, it causes lung cancer, and that the younger you start smoking, the harder it is to quit, and the more damage it does to you.

But the statement, and sentiment of that editorial, was not saying that. Instead, it conflated a scientific, medical evaluation with a specific political action, tying one with the other.

Raising the age to purchase will save lives?

The key problem here is the disconnect between a law’s intended result, and reality. A law telling people they can’t do something does not, in and of itself, manipulate behavior.

The editorial itself, rather hilariously, proves my point. “Every day 3,200 youth under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette,” it says.

But the purchase of tobacco products is already illegal for those under the age of 18. How in the world are these people getting hooked on cigarettes if the law itself was somehow preventing them?

The answer is that laws that seek to control behavior usually don’t.

If they did, no one would speed, everyone would wear their seat belt, there would be no such thing as underage drinking, people wouldn’t text and drive, and no one under 18 would smoke a cigarette.

The editorial argues it does control behavior, citing the example of Needham, Massachusetts, which instituted a 21-year-old tobacco purchase age in 2005, and today enjoys lower-than-average smoking rates.

Of course, the data they cite from the Needham city government tells us absolutely nothing.

Today the smoking rate in Needham is 8 percent, while in Massachusetts broadly it is 18 percent. But what was the rate before? How much did it fall by? What happened in towns near it that didn’t institute this change? What happened to smoking rates nationally? Are there any other factors that could explain the change?

It turns out when we look for more information, the miraculous anti-tobacco effects of the Needham law are a bit less impressive.

First of all, it was never appropriate to compare Needham to Massachusetts as a whole, as the Needham smoking rate was 13 percent in 2006, which was already significantly lower than the state as a whole.

Additionally, smoking rates have been on a steady decline nationally, with or without a 21-year age limit. In 2005 when Needham’s ban went into effect, the U.S. smoking rate was roughly 21 percent, and by 2015 it was down to 15.1 percent.

Now it is true that the rate of smoking in Needham declined slightly faster than in surrounding towns over this time period. But how much of that was related to the ban, and how much of it was related to a massive public education campaign? Changing demographics? Beefed-up enforcement? Natural decline?

It is impossible to say, and therefore impossible to draw a truly helpful conclusion.
As I have continually tried to point out over the years, correlation does not imply causation. Judging the effectiveness of public policy is about a lot more than noticing two similar-looking lines on a chart.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop most self-described experts from making bold declarations of supposition as fact, so long as it pays fidelity to more government control over our lives.

Look, I don’t want people to smoke. I hate tobacco. Cigarettes stole my father from me, and gave him the aggressive form of lung cancer that he died from three years ago.

I’m begging you — especially if you are a young person — to never start smoking.

But that doesn’t mean that I believe it is appropriate for the government to try to control our self-destructive behavior. At some point, it is up to us whether or not to drink a milkshake, eat something with trans fats, smoke a cigarette or consume alcohol.

So, yes, it may be cliche, but if we’ve decided that you are old enough to fight for this country and die on its behalf, than you are old enough to decide whether to smoke.

I simply ask that you decide not to.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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