Editorial | Cigarette bill goes up in smoke

Editorial | Cigarette bill goes up in smoke

Nanny-staters have suffered a setback.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner last week vetoed legislation that would have barred legal adults under the age of 21 from purchasing a package of cigarettes, vaping devices and other tobacco products.

The blowback was immediate, intense and, predictably, unhinged.

The Democratic sponsor of the bill, a legislator from suburban Chicago, accused the governor of siding "with Big Tobacco instead of our children."

A spokeswoman from the American Cancer Society accused the governor of, essentially, being a lackey for the tobacco industry who is opposed to "Illinois' public health progress" and is putting the "health of our children at risk."

Please note the intentional misrepresentation of the issue by the legislation's proponents. They insist Rauner's veto will hurt the health of "children," while the actual bill made it illegal for adults — 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds — to purchase cigarettes.

Such is the debased nature of our politics today that few of those participating in emotionally charged debates call a spade a spade. Regardless of accuracy, they search for emotionally charged rhetoric to sway public opinion — hence, the suggestions that Rauner opposes public health measures and encourages "children" to take up the vile habit of smoking cigarettes.

The public health case against cigarettes is — and has been for more than 50 years — overwhelming. Consumers of "cancer sticks" or "coffin nails" open themselves up to a variety of ailments, including cancer and heart/lung disease. That's why the long-running and legitimate public health education campaign that has sought to persuade smokers to quit and non-smokers not to start has been a huge success.

The rate of smoking has fallen dramatically over the decades. (Now, many of those who might have died prematurely from smoking-related illnesses can look forward in their dotage to suffering from Alzheimer's disease or some other equally horrific maladies.)

As smoking rates have fallen, however, anti-smoking zealots have embraced increasingly coercive methods to eliminate and/or reduce the hard-core minority of the population that continues to smoke.

This legislation is typical of that effort — similar legislation has been adopted in five states and hundreds of municipalities.

More states and municipalities, acting in self-righteous zeal, undoubtedly will follow.

But, assuming it's even possible, let's consider the proposal on its merits.

For starters, the legislation targets legal adults between 18 and 20 who are otherwise free to marry, to serve in the military, to sign contracts. They can die for their country while serving in the military but not have the option of purchasing a pack of cigarettes?

Shouldn't young adults be free to make their own choices? Further, if the law is to target legal adults, why not set the age at 25 or 30 instead of 18?

The law purports to be an effort to discourage minors from smoking. But, as Rauner pointed out, the law already bars minors from smoking.

He noted that "the existing penalty that this legislation removes for minors possessing tobacco is reasonable, provides the opportunity for education on the harmful effects of tobacco products and is a disincentive for tobacco use." "Eliminating this penalty will make it harder for communities to effectively address the public health issues connected to tobacco products," he said in his veto message.

Even more important is whether the proposed ban would have its intended effect. Just because the law would set the minimum age at 21 doesn't mean no one under 21 wouldn't find a way to obtain a pack of cigarettes. Just look at how many young people under 21 obtain alcoholic beverages.

"Raising the age people can purchase tobacco products will push residents to buy tobacco products from non-licensed vendors or in neighboring states. Since no neighboring state has raised the age for purchasing tobacco products, local businesses and the state will see decreased revenue while public health impacts continue," Rauner said.

That last point is a touchy one. While pretending to oppose the sale of cigarettes, our legislators have raised taxes on tobacco products to the point that they rely on the revenue tobacco generates to fund many state programs. Trying to have it both ways — as they often do — legislators have put themselves in a trick bag from which they cannot escape.

Hypocrisy, of course, is a staple of politics, and, to some degree, it has its place.

But there's a limit to how far the state should go to enforce the anti-smoking community's code of conduct on adults, even young adults. Under all the circumstances and regardless of the name-calling from critics, Gov. Rauner made the right decision to veto this ill-advised measure that was more symbolism than substance.

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