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Brown: No fire for raising smoking age

Updated: May 24, 2013 6:35AM

Last week while I was in Florida on vacation, I stopped in a bar that still allows smoking and was immediately reminded of two things.

One, I sure don’t miss breathing that smoky air.

Two, I’ve always been out of step on the smoke-free issues, remaining sympathetic to smokers long after that put me in a minority.

Now here we go again.

On Monday, top city officials in New York proposed legislation to raise its smoking age from 18 to 21.

That prompted City Council Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas to say Chicago should explore raising the smoking age here as well.

And here I am once more, a committed lifetime non-smoker and asthma sufferer, asking against my self-interest: Is that really necessary?

The answer I keep coming up with is: No.

Recent history would suggest it would be wiser for me to get on board the public opinion train now before it leaves the station without me — as it did with indoor smoking bans, which have made the world a more pleasant place to breathe.

As far as I’m concerned, nobody should smoke. It’s stupid.

But at some point in a person’s life, that’s their decision to make, not mine, especially if I’m not forced to share their air space.

Eighteen years of age would seem as good a time as any to allow someone to make that mistake for themselves, and if not, then we should reconsider all the other laws that make 18 the cutoff age, starting with eligibility for military service (which is actually 17 with parental consent).

I completely understand the argument that the best way to keep somebody from smoking cigarettes is to stop them from ever getting started. That’s undoubtedly true.

There are other effective ways to accomplish that short of making it illegal, which will be a deterrent to some while actually making it more attractive to others.

I’m always stunned when I see young people smoking these days. With all the information that it’s bad for your health, I don’t know why anybody would start. Of course, as always, I’m sure part of the attraction is doing something you’re not supposed to do.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, who tried to raise Illinois’ smoking age to 19 when he was a member of the state Legislature, said he did so in an effort to keep cigarettes out of the hands of high school students.

But even Fritchey questioned the effectiveness of local governments enacting their own age limits on a patchwork basis, suggesting that the smoking age is properly the province of the state.

Before I got on the wrong side of history again, though, I placed a call to Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association, which has long been at the forefront of smoke-free advocacy in Chicago.

To my surprise, Africk wasn’t prepared to lead the charge on raising the smoking age.

“It’s just nowhere on my radar screen to raise the age to smoke,” said Africk, who admitted being unfamiliar with the New York initiative, proposed by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a candidate for mayor.

The Respiratory Health Association is not philosophically opposed to a higher smoking age. That’s just not near the top of their policy agenda right now.

Africk said the organization is currently concentrating on two other initiatives aimed at preventing young smokers.

One seeks to create smoke-free campuses at all state universities and state-supported community colleges. Smoking is already prohibited in college dorms, classrooms and office buildings. This would expand the ban to include outdoor spaces on campus as well.

The second effort is to limit access to electronic or e-cigarettes by establishing 18 as an age limit for buying them, the same as for tobacco, Africk said.

Africk said the Respiratory Health Association has limited resources to conduct policy work and tries to concentrate on approaches that have been proven effective.

He said he is not familiar with research on the effectiveness of raising the age to buy tobacco products, but will look into it in light of the New York effort.

Africk wasn’t the only one taking a cautious approach Monday. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also hesitated to endorse the New York legislation.

By the time these young smokers become cancer patients, at least it looks as if they’ll be allowed to smoke marijuana to ease the pain.

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