‘Tobacco 21’ proposal ignites debate over freedoms

The bill’s proponents aim to aid public health, but opponents argue it would curtail individual rights.
Ben Kothe / Graphic Designer

After two Columbia commissions endorsed raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21, they may encounter a fight over personal freedoms.

First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick announced the initiative in September, and the Boone County Board of Health recently recommended sending legislation to Columbia City Council that would restrict anyone under 21 from buying tobacco products, as well as a separate amendment that would ban e-cigarettes indoors.

Ron Leone, Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association executive director, said raising the legal age would harm sales tax revenue, conflict with state and federal law and infringe upon individuals’ rights.

“If people are old enough to vote, have an abortion, enter a legal contract and most significantly, fight and die for our country in the military, then I’m confident, and the state and federal government is confident, that they can choose whether or not to smoke,” Leone said.

Almost 18 percent of high school students in Missouri smoke, according to information on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service’s website. When including products like smokeless tobacco, that number shoots to nearly 27 percent. Nearly 90 percent of adult smokers begin using tobacco before the age of 18.

“If you raise the age, it throws the damper on everyone younger who’s trying to use tobacco,” said Linda Cooperstock, a board member of Tobacco Free Missouri and president of Missouri Public Health Association. “It helps put a barrier up.”

If advocates want to raise the legal age of tobacco, Leone said they should do so at the state and federal level and it would be illegal to have a city law that conflicted with state law.

Local governments can have tobacco laws that are stricter than the state’s, according to the Department of Health. Tobacco Free Missouri lists 12 coalitions across the state that are advocating for more stringent tobacco laws, in addition to Columbia.

“We do not have an inalienable right to smoke,” Cooperstock said. “We have freedom of choice, but there are other instances when we stop people under 21 from taking certain actions — like renting a car or drinking alcohol.”

Cooperstock also pointed out that the age of military service has only been at 18 since 1942, while the drinking age has been 21 since 1984, saying that the legal age of certain actions has been fluid and should be fixed more on psychological readiness than historical precedent.

“There is a point where tobacco is a bad thing and it’s addictive, but it’s lawful and adults should have the right to choose whether or not to consume a lawful product,” Leone said. “If people want to change that, they should pass laws in Jefferson City or in Washington, so all retailers are playing by the same rules, so it’s uniform, predictable and consistent for all consumers and sellers.”

Cooperstock said her organizations don’t focus on the economic impact to retailers that would be unable to sell tobacco, but rather, they focus on the public health.

“The motto of the state of Missouri is, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law,’” Cooperstock said. “That’s another way to say that we should look after the health of the general public. While we can’t control every single person’s actions, if we reduce the number of people smoking as young adults, then we will reduce the number of people suffering from health complications like coronary heart disease and cancer and reduce the cost to the state and public and ensure the welfare of the people for a long time down the road.”

Chadwick was unavailable for comment.

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