- - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Prohibitionists no longer smash casks of demon rum with a sledgehammer. Carrie Nation and her hatchet, the nemesis of many a saloonkeeper in days gone by, have retired to the history books. Soda pop and cigarettes have replaced booze as the national scourge, but government nannies understand they’ll never muster the support to ban these harmful and forbidden pleasures. Taxation is the new weapon of the temperance brigades. A tax raises billions in revenues. Pouring Jack Daniel’s and Grey Goose down the drain can’t do that.

The New Jersey Legislature is considering a scheme to raise to 21 the legal minimum age for purchasing tobacco. The state Senate has adopted the measure, and it awaits consideration by the lower house. If enacted and signed by Gov. Chris Christie, it would make New Jersey the first state to do so. New Jersey in 2006 became the first to raise the age to 19.

Under the law, retailers who sell cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco or even e-cigarettes to buyers under 21 would be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“This is a highly addictive and deadly product,” says New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill. “We have to do all we can to minimize the risks for young people.”

Tobacco is certainly a health hazard. Cigarettes were called “coffin nails” a hundred years ago. But the new Prohibitionists aren’t about to outlaw the weed, because tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues would go up in smoke, while an untaxed black market in bootleg butts would flourish. New Jersey’s $2.70-per-pack tax on cigarettes generates $700 million annually. That’s a bad habit the big spenders in Trenton can’t kick.

Nevertheless, young people old enough to vote, marry, make contracts or join the Army aren’t considered old enough to decide for themselves whether to smoke or chew tobacco. Nobody wants to be the storekeeper in Jersey City or Newark to tell a 20-year-old Marine with a chest full of combat ribbons that he’s too callow to buy a pack of Marlboros.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of disease and death. It has now been 50 years since Surgeon General Luther Terry declared smoking hazardous to health. Only a Himalayan hermit, living by himself in a cave for the past half-century, would have missed that revelation. The health risks are prominently displayed on the package. Lighting up is a choice.

Give in to a nanny on cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products, and the nanny will be emboldened to go after other “risky” choices next. Bungee jumping, skydiving, motorcycles and rock climbing are fraught with danger, too. Layering the world with bubble wrap won’t prevent sickness or death, but it can make life joyless. Mr. Christie need not send for Carrie Nation’s hatchet to deal with this legislation if it reaches his desk. A simple veto will do.