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Editorial: Questions for the Ages in N.H.

  • The New Hampshire Legislature is considering raising from 18 to 21 the legal age for buying and possessing tobacco products. A second bill would allow 20-year-olds to drink in private settings, while retaining the current minimum age of 21 for liquor purchases and public consumption; a third would raise the minimum age to marry from 14 for boys and 13 for girls to 16 for both sexes. (AP photograph)


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pop quiz: What is the most consequential decision a young person can make? 1) to drink an alcoholic beverage for the first time; 2) to smoke a cigarette for the first time; 3) to get married; 4) to join the armed forces; 5) to vote in an election.

We ask not because we propose to provide an answer, but rather to put in perspective three bills now being considered by the New Hampshire Legislature. One would raise from 18 to 21 the legal age for buying and possessing tobacco products; a second would allow 20-year-olds to drink in private settings, while retaining the current minimum age of 21 for liquor purchases and public consumption; the third would raise the minimum age to marry from 14 for boys and 13 for girls to 16 for both sexes.

Of course, any discussion by the state Legislature of the legal age to use alcohol and tobacco is inevitably tainted by the state’s addiction to revenue generated by their sale. If anything sends a message to young people about alcohol use, it is the state’s relentless promotion of it through a state liquor monopoly dedicated to selling vast quantities of liquor as cheaply as possible.

As to smoking, the state has for years set its tobacco tax lower than surrounding states to boost sales of tobacco products. Liquor and tobacco revenues together account for some 15 percent of unrestricted general and education fund revenues in New Hampshire. So, depending on your point of view, tweaking the legal age to use either product may be seen as an exercise in rank hypocrisy or tragic irony.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of each of these pending bills worthy of exploration.

The rationale for raising the smoking age, which five states have already done, is that the longer people have to wait to buy tobacco products legally, the less likely they are to start smoking in the first place. And those who don’t start won’t ever become addicted to tobacco, thus improving public health and holding down health care costs. As Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady recently reported, the American Lung Association predicts that smoking among 18- to 20-year-olds would decline by 15 percent with a smoking age of 21 and by 25 percent for those 15 to 17 years old.

This appears to be a compelling case, but as always in New Hampshire, things are more complicated. A couple of area lawmakers interviewed by O’Grady expressed general support for raising the age, but worried about how much state revenue would be lost by doing so and how it would be made up in the tax-averse environment of the New Hampshire Legislature. (In a fiscal note accompanying the bill, the Department of Revenue Administration says that since it collects no data on how many smokers there actually are in the 18-to-20 age group it cannot predict the impact.)

The proposal to lower the drinking age has alarmed many in the public health field as well as public safety officials. “It would make us the only state in the country that would have a lower than 21 drinking age, and we fear that would make us a haven for 20-year-olds to come into the state and potentially purchase alcohol,” Christopher Casko, a lawyer for the Department of Safety, said in testimony before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The bill’s sponsor, Dan Hynes, R-Merrimack, counters that setting the drinking age as high as 21 actually encourages binge drinking in college, which is not an entirely crazy argument. Other countries with lower drinking ages have fewer alcohol problems than the United States, Hynes argues. Indeed, consulting our memory through the mists of time, we do not recall encountering such widespread alcohol abuse as now exists on college campuses when the legal drinking age in a number of states was under 21.

We do not expect Hynes’ bill to be enacted. For one thing, federal highway money is dependent on maintaining a legal drinking age of 21. Raising the smoking age perhaps has a better chance, but it is susceptible to one unanswerable argument, which also applies to the 21-year-old drinking age. If one is deemed sufficiently mature at the age of 18 to join the armed forces and fight and die for one’s country, one is certainly entitled to enjoy the prerogatives of adulthood, including consuming alcohol and using tobacco legally.

(We might add that 18-year-olds are also entrusted with the most solemn responsibility of a citizen in a democracy, voting, a right enshrined in the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

The Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the whole age debate is nowhere more apparent than in New Hampshire’s marriage statutes. Existing state law, a vestige of an earlier century, allows girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 to wed with court approval. The pending legislation would set that age at 16 for both. Why not 18? Perhaps because the Legislature last year rejected a bill that would have done so.

Nonetheless, we would argue that the decision to marry requires at least as much sound judgment as choosing whether to smoke or drink.

We now invite you to answer the quiz.