There’s no need for Nebraska legislators to rush to follow the lead of the two states that have raised the minimum smoking age to 21.
Opponents of the move have raised a legitimate argument against the change. If 18-year-olds can be trusted to make their own decisions on such matters as whether to join the military, rent an apartment or cast a vote for U.S. president and other elected offices, they ought to have the right to decide whether to buy a pack of cigarettes.
Make no mistake. The Journal Star recognizes that smoking is a real health threat, and that those who take up the habit are in real danger of cutting short their lives.
But smoking rates in Nebraska have been declining for years. The Legislature should be content to simply let the trend continue. State senators should resist the urge to further infringe on the rights of Nebraskans aged 18 to 21.
A report for the State Health Department last year showed that from 2011 to 2014 the smoking rate for adults age 18 and older dropped from 20 percent to 17 percent. Nebraska’s smoking rate was the 20th lowest among all the states.
The legislation, LB73, introduced by Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha, would make it illegal to sell to or share with anyone under 21 nicotine or tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Riepe argued that raising the smoking age would help keep cigarettes away from younger teens who are more likely to be around 18-year-olds than 21-year-olds. That assertion, however, is undercut by research showing that many people have their first cigarette well under the age of 18.
One unfortunate potential impact of the law is that it could leave a new segment of the population with criminal records. A 20-year-old who bummed a smoke off her 21-year-old roommate would be guilty of a Class V misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $100. The 21-year-old would be guilty of Class III misdemeanor, subject to a sentence of up to three months in jail or a $500 fine or both.
The push to raise the smoking age to 21 is in its infancy. The only two states to enact the higher age limit are Hawaii and California, and the laws in those two states did not go into effect until last year. There’s no reason for Nebraska to join that club. Senators should devote their attention to the other priorities.