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Our Opinion: Uncle Sam should butt out on raising tobacco age to 21

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Spurred by a public health scare, Congress is considering a big-government power grab to save young adults from themselves.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is reintroducing legislation to raise the minimum age for tobacco and nicotine product purchases from 18 to 21, and Senate leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has vowed to introduce a similar bill this month.

A much-hyped surge in vaping and e-cigarette use among teenagers and young adults is the chief excuse. Supporters of the age restriction measure say kids who’ve never smoked are picking up devices marketed as smoking cessation aids and getting hooked on the nicotine they contain.

Twelve states — including Virginia — and at least 450 cities and towns have raised the smoking age to 21. On Wednesday, retail giant Walmart announced it would not sell cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and vape pens to anyone under 21 beginning July 1.

Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, said vaping products are largely responsible for a new generation developing a nicotine addiction. Though the technology’s overall public health outcome is negative, he acknowledges that vaping is less harmful than cigarette smoking.

People smoke, vape, chew and dip because nicotine causes the release of dopamine, which “stimulates the reward center and is responsible for the mood elevation and apparent improvement in cognitive function,” according to the National Institutes of Health. A 2010 surgeon general’s report called the drug “as addictive as cocaine or heroin.”

Nicotine increases pulse and blood pressure, causes cancer and harms the heart, lung, kidneys and male and female reproductive systems, the NIH reports. It’s a deadly and dangerous drug. Tobacco and nicotine users should quit, and non-users should avoid the products at all costs.

The arguments against smoking and vaping are sound science — airtight and ironclad. The case for ratcheting up age restrictions is far less persuasive, rooted in paranoia and paternalism.

Congress effectively raised the national drinking age to 21 with a 1984 law that required each state to adopt and enforce the new standard or lose federal highway money. It’s unclear whether a similar mechanism would be used to bring the 38 remaining 18-and-up tobacco states to heel or whether lawmakers would abandon the funding pretense and run roughshod over states’ 10th Amendment right to set their own such policies.

Restrictionists say raising the minimum purchase age would reduce teen vaping, which is being hyped as a new American epidemic.

While it’s true that 18-year-old high school students could no longer supply underclassmen with tobacco and nicotine products if they couldn’t buy them, underage drinkers still find ways around the 21-and-up law for alcoholic beverages.

Raising the age sends a disheartening message to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds: Your government doesn’t trust you to make your own decisions. You may technically be an adult, but you’re not really a grownup. You need Big Brother to take care of you.

Eighteen is the age of majority and the threshold at which citizens receive the right to vote, marry, sign contracts, purchase property, gamble and join the military. Drinking is an outlier. Adding smoking and vaping to the mix further erodes the distinction between children and adults.

That’s what many restrictionists want. Campus safety culture — the anti-free speech phenomenon where speakers are shut down, controversial views are silenced and trigger warnings are given in the interest of college students’ supposed well-being — stems from a misguided impulse to infantilize undergrads.

Limiting young people’s rights and extending adolescence has gained popularity. Before smoking, it was guns, with a fruitless push last spring to raise the purchase age for semiautomatic rifles to 21. Similar safety arguments were trotted out, and opponents were cast as irresponsible libertines who don’t care about saving lives.

Put simply, the genuine issue here isn’t guns or tobacco — it’s citizenship. Full exercise of constitutional rights and freedoms must be vested at the legal age of majority. Anything less is age discrimination that denies young adults full participation in society.

Some states with 21-and-up tobacco laws have carve-outs exempting active-duty military service members, highlighting the inherent contradiction between inviting an 18-year-old to risk his life in battle and then saying he’s not mature enough to buy a vape pen or a pack of smokes.

Tobacco and nicotine use is harmful. But whether to smoke, vape or abstain is a choice American adults 18 and older must be free to make on their own.