I warned every Republican about the moral hazard that Donald Trump posed to America from the moment he rode down that golden escalator. In 2008, following generations of discrimination, American voters made history by electing a cigarette smoker to the Oval Office. Why erase all that progress by replacing him with a tobacco-free teetotaler? The American people did not listen, and so, on December 20, the federal government raised the smoking age from the mindless 18 to the criminal 21.
Like all great betrayals, this one was bipartisan. Every horrible cause needs its useful idiots, so Trump turned to tobacco states for political cover. Sen. Tim Kaine, who applied a smoking ban to Marlboro County as Virginia governor, joined forces with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, where tobacco remains a staple crop for family farms, to outlaw teenage consumption of the dreaded cancer stick. Lawmakers were not brave enough to vote on the bill as a standalone measure, of course. They snuck it into must-pass spending legislation to ensure compliance. Democrats used the same tactic to eliminate tobacco discounts for the military in 2015, hiding price hikes for our nation’s overtaxed service members in the national defense spending bill.
This is not to say that America’s teens needed much convincing. Less than 6 percent of high schoolers lit up in 2019, according to the National Youth Tobacco survey — down a full 10 percentage points from 2011 and 23 points from teens at the start of the millennium. The results of the annual CDC-sponsored survey paint a grim picture of America’s youth: they are either lying or lame. In both cases, the responses reflect a generation of teens so eager to please adults, so enchanted by the idea of a pat on the head that I am unsure how the American republic can long endure. The Naval Health Research Center found that 80 percent of male Marine Corps recruits used tobacco prior to enlistment. Falling smoking rates have coincided with a recruitment crisis in the armed forces. Coddling our nation’s youth against any and all risky activities has its costs.
A number of states had already raised the tobacco-buying age to the drinking age prior to the federal legislation. Many of these nanny-staters at least had the decency to create exemptions for enlisted troops. Even they recognized the absurdity of sending American youths to die in the name of liberty, or at least nation building, while denying them the simple pleasure of a cigarette or chew because it may kill them after five decades of use. The federal law overrides all of those exemptions, but perhaps that is the point (McConnell is a master strategist). The smoking age remains 18 in Afghanistan and Syria, while you only have to be 17 to purchase a pack in North Korea. At least our military recruiters have a new selling point.
Elites are suspicious of any child who does something as common as puff a cigarette or take a sip of beer, because studies — there are always studies — show smoking requires workers to leave their desks and alcohol can hurt productivity. Those same moralizers are wide open to the idea of psychedelics if the drugs can improve your ability to program a computer, particularly if that program can convert laborers into gig workers or, better, robots. The idle drive in your car used to be a rite of passage for every American youth. Now the running engine is considered an act of environmental genocide. Teens must borrow a yacht from a Monacan royal famous for starting and losing barfights — if only he did LSD — to advance a political agenda in order to win a stamp of approval from grown-ups.
The technocratic age demands justification for any and everything. It is to the technocrat’s advantage that he can quantify anything that serves his interest, while remaining agnostic as to the quality. Bring up quality and he’ll exclaim ‘Subjective!,’ or ‘Anecdotal!,’ or, if he’s desperate, ‘Ackshully.’ Data forfend the subject in question is a petty pleasure, particularly if it requires something as basic as fire to enjoy. As a good journalist, I could point out all of the holes in their data, particularly the shoddy research used to justify second-hand smoke bans. Instead I will concede every data point to the anti-tobacco crusaders no matter how dubious, I will throw them all onto the scale and laugh as all that data — and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to produce it — sails into the sky when weighed against the simple pleasure of smoking a cigarette.
That little stick of tobacco is an upper that relaxes, a downer that excites. It can get you in trouble with bureaucrats and administrators and parents, but not your priest, who knows better. Of course bipartisan busybodies want to take it away. To the youth of America, I have nothing to offer but my condolences — and a valid Virginia license I will use to buy you a pack of smokes any time, anywhere.