Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has become something of a viral legend by tweeting out memes referencing a bizarre drug-related nickname and leaning into his persona as the “Grim Reaper” of socialist bills. However, he recently disappointed many of his fans with his latest legislative maneuver—a proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
Although this mirrors growing statewide restrictions on tobacco, with Texas becoming the latest conservative bastion to raise the smoking age, right-leaning thinkers have condemned the move as a paternalistic encroachment on personal autonomy that spells disaster for conservative arguments about the limits of federal power. Though well-intentioned, these criticisms overlook two key considerations: this measure will help bring rationality to American drug policy and it underscores our commitment to the duties that go hand in hand with liberty.
To begin, conservatives rightly decry the scope of our leviathan federal government, but it’s just as troubling how illogically the government performs its proper functions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the substances it chooses or declines to control. For instance, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for substances with “no currently accepted medical use.” Leaving aside the debate about recreational use, a growing body of evidence supports an undeniable, if limited, role for cannabis in medicine. If that wasn’t enough, more dangerous substances, like cocaine and methamphetamine, are assigned to Schedule II—a less restrictive category.
A rational approach to drug policy would correlate the restrictions on controlled substances with their potential to harm the human body. In many cases, this means relaxing federal constraints, but it also means re-examining the status of substances the law treats less restrictively. Tobacco, with its stupefying list of medical consequences, is overdue for a course correction.
Why should the only options be unrestricted access or total prohibition?
Moreover, while conservatives treasure individual liberty, we also recognize that citizens are obligated to exercise their rights responsibly. For example, a mother’s liberty to do whatever she wants with her body does not outweigh her obligations to her children, whether in or ex utero. In objecting to McConnell’s bill, Ramesh Ponnuru conceded that the 21-year rule for alcohol may be justified, given the potential for “injuries to third parties.”
But tobacco use by young adults does not occur in a vacuum either.
More than 80 percent of everyday smokers report starting before age 18, and 90 percent of cigarettes purchased for minors are bought by persons aged 18-20. Accordingly, an Institute of Medicine analysis concluded that raising the minimum purchase age of tobacco to 21 would reduce smoking initiation rates among American children aged 15-17 by 25 percent. And while the 21-year minimum for alcohol hardly put an end to teen drinking, it achieved significant and durable reductions in alcohol-related motor fatalities for persons aged 16-20.
A key benchmark of a free society is our tolerance for other people’s bad decisions, and adults should be at liberty to make them—up to the point at which they imperil the public. Most Americans are at peace with the federal government barring people of all ages from purchasing heroin and PCP in order to keep these drugs off our streets and out of the hands of our children. The evidence is clear that striking a new balance on tobacco would pay similar dividends.
It is tempting but incorrect to liken this proposal to leftist nanny-statism. Conservatives are right to oppose taxes on soft drinks and increases in the minimum purchase age for rifles. Exercising responsibility in these pursuits is the duty of every citizen.
In moderation, sodas can be a benign indulgence in an otherwise healthy diet and legally purchased firearms can be used safely for sport and protection. No such redeeming qualities exist for tobacco use. Moreover, the bill is not intended to save 18 to 21-year-olds from themselves, but to curb the harm created by them irresponsibly purchasing tobacco products for minors.
So, three cheers for “Cocaine Mitch.” It takes courage and wit to reconcile the competing imperatives of conservative governance. His detractors should give the proposal a second, more nuanced look.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.