For as long as grownups have been in charge of civil societies, they’ve wrestled with the riddle of what it means to be a grownup: For example: “Eighteen is the official age when people in the U.S. are deemed adults. So shouldn’t 18-year-olds be given all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood?”
If only there were a cut-and-dried answer.
The riddle has cropped up throughout U.S. history, such as during World War II when 18-year-old males were made eligible for the draft but not the polling place. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!” turned into a rallying cry for young people. They were finally granted suffrage in 1971 when Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.
But that didn’t solve the riddle for all time. In 2016, some Washington state leaders have revived it by proposing to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote, old enough to smoke!” could become the cry of tobacco users, as well as cigarette and vaping industry lobbyists.
Meanwhile, some state leaders think so highly of the maturity and decision-making ability of Washington youth, they want to pass a law letting them pre-register to vote when they’re as young as 16.
So why can’t grownups at the state Capitol make up their minds? If young adults can be trusted to insert a ballot in a box, why shouldn’t they be trusted to choose whether to insert a nicotine-delivery device in their mouths?
It’s a fair question whose answer will leave a bad aftertaste among people who like to deal in absolutes.
Voting is broadly condoned because of its salubrious impact on the quality of civic life, both for the voter and those around him. Smoking, on the other hand, is broadly condemned because of its ruinous impact on the quality of human life, both for the smoker and those around him. It is the No. 1 most preventable cause of death in the world.
Both voting and smoking are habit-forming for young people. The Washington Attorney General’s office cites statistics showing that 95 percent of smokers start before age 21. And the Washington Secretary of State’s office says that while the 18-24 age demographic has by far the lowest voter participation, a person who values casting a ballot at age 18 is likely to become a lifelong voter.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is pushing bills this year that would make Washington the second state to raise the legal smoking and vaping age to 21. While acknowledging the riddle of selective adulthood, he notes that setting the mark at 21 for some behaviors isn’t a novel concept. After all, nobody is trying to lower Washington’s drinking age to 18, he told The News Tribune editorial board Wednesday.
Raising the smoking age simply makes good public-health sense. It deserves the bipartisan support it’s gotten so far.
For her part, Secretary of State Kim Wyman is advocating legislation that would allow youths to pre-register to vote when they’re 17; an alternative bill in the House would drop the age to 16. Wyman’s plan also would provide convenient ways for students to do the paperwork, such as at high school Good Citizenship Day.
Lowering the pre-registration age makes good civic-health sense. Young people should be encouraged, nudged and cajoled to vote. The late U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, who spent three decades leading the fight to lower the voting age to 18, championed the potential of youths: “They possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.”
And if their social conscience pricks them to believe that all adults, including 18-year-olds, have an inalienable right to smoke?
God bless them, they can always defend that belief through the ballot.