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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Filler: Illogical bans on tobacco sales

Cigarettes behind the counter of the Sunrise Optimo

Cigarettes behind the counter of the Sunrise Optimo store at 304 Court St. in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on March 18, 2013. Credit: Linda Rosier

So just who, if anyone, ought to be barred from buying cigarettes? It's a hot topic in Suffolk County and in several states looking to raise the age at which adults can purchase smokes. Raising the age is a terrible idea from a civil liberty point of view, but it's an even worse idea when you add logic to the mix.

Suppose a study came out that said smokers, as they age and continue to indulge, face a much steeper penalty in terms of longevity than younger puffers. Would it be reasonable, then, for governments to ban selling tobacco to people older than 40, 50, 60 or 70?

I don't think so, and not just because I fall into that age range, and my attempts to quit smoking have progressed only as far as removing the ashtray from my elliptical machine. It would be wrong because we oldsters are full-fledged citizens and have the right to do anything that's legal. Were that not so, right-thinking members of society already would have banned us from wearing midriff shirts, tight jeans, and heels more than three inches high, buying mid-life crisis sports cars, going to dance clubs and using (or making tragic attempts to use) hip lingo.

We'd be totes repressed.

In fact, the British Doctors Study has been done, following more than 40,000 men for 50 years, and it showed there really is a steeply sliding scale of shortened life span for smokers depending on when they quit. On average, those who stop lighting up by age 30 have no loss of life span. None.

Quit at 40 and you lose a year. Those who can toss the pack at 50 are docked four years; at 60, seven years; and at 70 . . . Well, statistically, if you smoke until 70, you'll lose 10 years of life span, so that's probably time to start buying by the pack rather than by the carton.

New York City recently raised the legal age to buy cigarettes to 21. Admittedly, that has very little bearing on whether 18- to 20-year-olds, or even 6-year-olds, will be able to make such purchases in the Big Apple, but still. Suffolk County is hearing public comment on the same age minimum, and both Utah and Colorado are considering 21 as well.

Now, let's try a little logic puzzle: By definition, prohibiting the sale of something to a specific group is based on the idea that such bans work. If we believe a ban on sales to people of a certain age can be effective, why would we not allow cigarette sales to the 18-year-olds who can smoke for another 12 years with hardly any ill effects, but allow sales to folks aged 40 to 60, who lose about nine days of life for every month they continue smoking.

I agree that we don't want young people picking up such an addictive habit. But these 18- to 20-year-olds are adults. They can vote, marry, handle their own legal affairs and enlist in the military.

Banning the purchase of cigarettes by young adults is not, from a civil liberties perspective, any more justifiable than banning Jews or Asians or, yes, middle-aged and elderly folks, from smoking. In fact, banning these young adults from buying and consuming liquor, as the nation mostly has done since 1984, is just as unjustifiable.

Morally, I mean. It's easy to justify from the "I have been around drunk 19-year-olds and that @#$% just should not be allowed" perspective, but to be fair, drunk 93-year-olds are no great shakes either.

Given my druthers, I'd let all adults do what they want as long as they don't harm others, and I certainly wouldn't ban any behaviors for one set of adults but not others. But if we must make age-specific rules, I'd ban smoking for people older than 30, and I'd ban serving in the military for anyone younger than 30, which at least would focus the restrictions on groups they actually can save.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



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