“Peter Pan” is having a moment. Kelsea Ballerini has a hit country song named after him, while Ruth B’s debut “Lost Boy” is climbing the Billboard Hot 100. And now, it seems a theme of the story and songs — not growing up — has taken root in Portland.
In Maine’s largest city, once you reach 18, you are empowered to effectuate the spending of $100 million on schools. You are able to vote on which left-of-center legislator speaks for you in Augusta. And, of course, you can decide whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is the lesser of two evils, or raise your right hand and agree to place your life in jeopardy on behalf of your nation.
But purchasing a cigarette or chewing tobacco? That is now simply a bridge too far. For “bad” things like handguns, cigars, alcohol, or marijuana, you will need to wait until you reach the otherwise unremarkable age of 21. And we won’t even begin to discuss age requirements — or the lack thereof — around sex, abortions, and birth control.
By requiring individuals to reach age 21 before buying tobacco products, the city acted with the best of intentions. It is empirically true that cigarettes are bad for you. Almost half a million Americans die every year from the effects of smoking. And, if the models used by the National Academy of Sciences are accurate, increasing the minimum age for tobacco use will decrease or delay young people from ever starting smoking.
Of course, we know lots of other things are bad for you. Obesity is likely the second leading cause of preventable death — it is hard to define — responsible for over 300,000 annually. Requiring people to work out daily and eat only healthy, nutritious food would reduce that number markedly. Passing an ordinance requiring those under age 21 to do so would certainly set them up for healthier lifestyles in the future, delaying or preventing the onset of obesity.
Yet, despite the best of intentions, these laws — real or hypothetical — should raise a question: when should we allow individuals to make bad decisions? Is it never? That is a little authoritarian. Is it when they “grow up” and become an adult? If so, when is that?
At some point, we need to simply place a line in the sand and expect individuals to be grown-ups, holding them accountable if they fall short. Sending mixed messages — you are trusted with the power to choose the leader of the free world but not mature enough to have a beer or a cigarette — confuses matters. If an 18-year-old’s brain is not sufficiently developed to make decisions about chemical use, how is it able to make judgements about military service or electoral politics?
Spacing out the milestones of adulthood — voting, criminal responsibility, alcohol, firearms, forming contracts — works to create a culture of perpetual adolescence, a modern version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. If you’re 19 and you can’t drink or buy cigarettes, are you really an adult? What about if you’re 22 and on mom’s health insurance and Netflix account?
This delayed assumption of the “adult” mantle leads to episodes like last fall at Yale, where students — ostensibly some of the brightest in the nation — effectively invented and then claimed a right to not be offended. Similar calls have arisen across the country, where some students have called for academic campuses to be areas free of controversial or upsetting ideas. These students will almost all have the opportunity to vote this November, but do not have the wherewithal to withstand upsetting or offensive things they will confront every day in the “real world.”
So maybe Portland is onto something. Maybe 18-year-olds today are not as mature or developed as generations past and should not be trusted with cigarettes. But if that is the case, we should consider raising the age at which other privileges and responsibilities of American adults arise. Let’s try and find some consistent, admittedly arbitrary, age and allow people to then live their lives with a modicum of autonomy.
After all, Neverland isn’t a real place. At some point, we all must grow up. When you do, you should be free to have a cigarette on your way to vote for Hillary, with a stop for pizza and beer afterwards. I might think those are all bad choices, but they are yours to make.