As interest groups go, people aged 18 to 20 don’t have politicians quaking in their boots. They don’t vote very much and they don’t vote as a bloc. So people aged 18 to 20 who smoke are a total irrelevance, politically speaking – smokers in general do not vote on the basis of smokers’ rights. Smokers are a dwindling minority – around 14 per cent of the adult population in the UK – and they increasingly come from poor and marginalised backgrounds. The fewer there are, the easier it is for politicians to kick them around.
Removing the right of 18- to 20-year-olds to buy tobacco is therefore unlikely to generate much pushback from the people who will be directly affected, most of whom will be 21 by the time such a law comes into effect. It will be portrayed as “bold” and “brave” by the usual puritanical activists, but there is nothing courageous about going after a minority within a minority.
The US recently raised the age at which tobacco can be bought to 21, but there are local peculiarities there that don’t apply to the UK. Firstly, the national drinking age across the whole of America has been 21 since 1988. That was ostensibly to prevent drink-driving, but it means there is a precedent for treating young adults as children. Secondly, the US has been in the grip of a panic about vaping for the past few years. Through a dishonest quirk, American health agencies classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products and, weird though it may seem, one of the main reasons for raising the age at which tobacco products can be bought was to stop people vaping, not smoking. (It was also supported by the tobacco industry.)
In the UK, the age at which people are considered to be adults has generally gone down over the years. Until 1970, you had to be 21 to vote. The age of homosexual consent was 21 until 1994. These days, the only thing you’re not allowed to do between the age of 18 and 20 is adopt a child. With the exception of the age of consent (16), driving a car (17) and giving blood (17), the law has coalesced around the age of 18 as being the age at which people have the physical and mental maturity to make their own decisions.
When the legal smoking age rose from 16 to 18 in 2007, civil libertarians raised few objections since it only created parity with other potentially risky activities, such as gambling, drinking and fighting in a war. Increasing it to 21 brings it in line with almost nothing and looks more like the start of incremental prohibition than a considered verdict on the age at which people have enough wisdom to weigh up risks and benefits.
There are plenty of people, albeit still a minority, who think that full prohibition of tobacco is the way to go. If that is the endgame, we should have that debate openly rather than pussyfooting around with 18- to 20-year-olds who are considered, in every other sphere, to be adults.
[See also: Will we ever stamp out smoking entirely?]