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Rod Watson: Albany fuddy-duddies erode rights of adults 18 to 20

If young adults, typically the demographic with the lowest Election Day turnout, needed any more incentive to vote, the latest assault on their rights by the fuddy-duddy generations should do it.

Not content with stopping 18-, 19-, or 20-year-olds about to ship off to war from having a beer, now they don’t even want them to have a smoke to calm their nerves. (I suppose there would be an exception if you’re about to be executed.)

Proving that absolute power corrupts absolutely, Democrats high on their takeover of both houses of the State Legislature now want to raise the age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 – the age of majority, when you’re supposed to be a co-equal adult with all the attendant rights and responsibilities – to 21. The Assembly already has passed the bill and the Senate is expected to follow suit.

That means if you’re caught in that nether-age, you’ll still be stuck with all of the responsibilities while your rights are slowly being eroded.

One doesn’t have to be a fan of tobacco use to recognize the injustice. In fact, despite its long-standing efforts to get the state to adequately fund programs to "curtail the carnage caused by tobacco use," the New York Public Interest Research Group summed up the principle at stake in singling out one segment of the adult population.

"NYPIRG has long been an advocate for strong pro-health, science-based restrictions on tobacco use. However, we have long had the position that discrimination against adults should be opposed," the organization told a joint legislative committee last month.

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Contrasting this attempt with the hike in the drinking age decades ago, NYPIRG noted that move was mandated by the federal government’s threat to slash highway funding if states did not capitulate. It also pointed to a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health that found New York City’s law increasing the tobacco-purchasing age from 18 to 21 did not cut youth tobacco use "any more rapidly than declines observed in comparison sites."

That should hardly be surprising. After all, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, "Nearly 90 percent of adult smokers began smoking before age 18."

That means we’re singling out 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds for no good reason.

Surely, there’s something in the U.S. Constitution – say, perhaps, the 14th Amendment’s "equal protection" clause – that outlaws such blatant discrimination?

Apparently not.

"There are many areas of the law where distinctions are made based on age," said Lucinda M. Finley, a University at Buffalo Law School professor well-versed in Constitutional law.

How can this be? Finley explained that under the equal protection clause, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that categories like race or religion are "suspect classes" and that government distinctions based on them demand a "compelling reason."

But when considering other factors, "age being one of them, the government only needs a ‘rational’ reason," she said, and courts usually defer to the government’s reasoning in such cases.

"In other words," Finley said, "not all distinctions are created equal."

With nicotine, she said, research showing how it affects the developing brain would give the government more than a rational reason. And since age discrimination doesn’t invite strict scrutiny, that’s all that is required.

But just because such age discrimination is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. We’re setting up a category of quasi-adults – people responsible enough to vote, marry, sign contracts and even serve in the Legislature, but who can’t buy a cigarette – just because they don’t vote in large enough numbers to fight back.

Democracy should mean more than that.

And no, I’ve never been a smoker, so it’s not that nicotine has affected my brain development.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that about the state’s lawmakers.

 

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