The issue: A new law nannies adults, hurts small business.

What we think: The age hike will impact the wrong people.

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One federal law implemented Jan. 1 may seem like a crusade for public safety, but it is, in fact, a drag on free enterprise, a nannyist approach to young adulthood and an expansion of prohibition (which rarely works).

We’re talking, of course, about raising the legal age to purchase tobacco and nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges, from 18 to 21 years old.

To be clear: Cigarettes are poison. They lead to lung cancer, emphysema, premature births and other pregnancy issues. Choosing not to smoke cigarettes will likely result in a longer, healthier life. But we, as adults, are compelled to make life-changing (even life-ending) choices every day. Will you wear your seatbelt? Your helmet? Will you consume a large soda or get water instead? Will you use a plastic straw? Will you carry a firearm? Would you use it if threatened?

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The fact is, cigarettes and the vast array of nicotine-based choices are still legal. And in the U.S., a person is considered an adult upon turning 18. That person has likely been behind the wheel of car; if a citizen, that person has the right to vote; that person may purchase a firearm; and that person may legally fight for (and die for) his or her country as a member of the armed forces.

At some point, an adult is an adult and should be allowed to make decisions for his or herself. If we want that age to be 21, then one should not legally be bound by decisions made until after his or her 21st birthday.

The new law will also have a profound impact on legally operating (and often small) businesses involved in related commerce (see page 12).

In December, North Carolina’s Winston-Salem Journal published an article by Richard Craver titled “Sudden enforcement of age-21 tobacco restrictions catches retailers, customers by surprise.”

Craver writes, “The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] told The Associated Press on [Dec. 27] that ‘because the change simply increased the age limit in existing law, it was able to go into effect immediately.’”

Craver reports, “The sudden enforcement of the restrictions has caught local tobacco and vaping shops, as well as the National Association of Convenience Stores, by surprise with plenty of unanswered questions.”

Among those: Why wasn’t there a grandfather clause for adults ages 18-21 before the new law? How will the new law be enforced? Will restrictions create a black market for 18- to 20-year-olds addicted to nicotine products? How will retailers supplement the loss of sales?

“For some tobacco and vape shops, that age group represented up to 25% of their revenue,” Craver reports.

Some businesses have voluntarily pulled cigarettes from their shelves prior to the passage of the new law. Cutting back on tobacco sales is great — but it should be a choice.

Finally, let’s look at our nation’s prohibition successes. We all know how the ban on alcohol turned out. Despite public knowledge of its insidiousness, prohibition drove production and consumption underground, creating far more public health and legal issues than had it just been regulated. And now we’re seeing the prohibition of cannabis overturned in state after state, election after election.

Many billions of dollars have been spent over our country’s history in an attempt to ensure certain products don’t make it into the hands of what legislators view as vulnerable populations. But maturity is a spectrum. Not all 18-year-olds are created equally — the same for 30-year-olds. So rather than spending on prohibitions proven not to work, on new laws that will likely have minimal results in the end and on policing unwinnable policy wars, the money should be spent on educating the public about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine use and providing cessation support for adults who choose to quit using a legal product.

Eighteen-year-olds should be allowed to partake in any activity reserved for adults. That should include the right to buy tobacco and vaping products.