What’s the appropriate age for someone to assume the legal rights and responsibilities of adulthood?
In California, most other states and most other Western nations, it’s 18.
An 18-year-old can vote, join the military (or be drafted in time of war), have consensual sex, marry without parental consent, smoke cigarettes, buy medical marijuana, serve on a jury or sign a binding contract.
A few privileges are available earlier, such as obtaining a driver’s license or an abortion.
One – legally buying and consuming liquor – doesn’t kick in until age 21, which was the generally accepted “age of majority” for many decades. Lowering the age of legal adulthood gained currency during the 1970s on the premise that it was wrong to draft someone to fight in Vietnam at 18, yet not allow the draftee to vote until 21.
The Legislature is grappling with redefining adulthood this year, as well as the larger question of how far government should go to protect adults from their own foibles.
One bill, for instance, would allow 16-year-olds to vote in local school elections on the dubious premise that they are mature enough to make thoughtful decisions about matters affecting their futures.
Another bill that would raise the age of buying and smoking cigarettes to 21 has cleared both legislative houses and needs only Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature to become law.
It’s been depicted as a triumph of public health consciousness over the lobbying muscle of the tobacco industry, although even if Brown signs the measure, the industry may challenge it at the ballot box.
The industry’s obvious stake aside, there is a legitimate question about denying the legal right to smoke to young adults who can legally do almost everything else, including vote and face death in war.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, voted against the bill and later wrote in USA Today that raising the smoking age to 21 while allowing someone to obtain medical marijuana at 18 is a “legal anomaly.”
“Until we standardize the rules, we are hypocrites and can’t claim we care about the lungs of young people,” Gatto opined.
The cigarette bill also exemplifies what’s been termed “nanny government” – aimed at persuading, or even compelling, adults to change otherwise legal behavior deemed harmful.
One example: A bill to have the state ensure that photographic and runway models are eating healthily.
A ballot measure to raise cigarette taxes is another example, as are bills to impose new taxes on fattening snacks and sweetened beverages.
Their sponsors believe that raising the costs of cigarettes, candy and soda pop consumption will improve health.
But should government be using taxation to penalize anything that a majority of legislators or voters don’t happen to like?
What about alcohol consumption? Liquor is at least as destructive as cigarettes, candy and soda pop, yet our taxes on tippling are among the nation’s lowest, and no one is seriously proposing to raise them.
It’s quite obvious from conventions, fundraisers and other political events that politicians are rarely teetotalers.