One question that parents, educators and society face is when to hold youth responsible for their actions. Should there be punishment or should they be excused for not following rules or laws? This question was apparently debated on the D.C. Council during its discussion over raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21.
The Washington Post reports, “D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser plans to sign some of the nation’s toughest anti-tobacco laws increasing the smoking age to 21 and regulate electronic cigarettes like traditional ones, adding the District to the scores of jurisdictions trying to protect a new generation from nicotine addiction.” Last week, the mayor signed a bill “making it illegal to ‘vape’ electronic cigarettes inside public establishments where lighting up tobacco is already banned, including bars, restaurants and workplaces.”
The Post went on to report, “Research showing more than 90 percent of tobacco users started when they were minors. Anti-tobacco advocates and lawmakers, including in the District, are in turn trying to limit youth exposure to tobacco products by restricting where they may be used and who can buy them. “
Society has agreed and research proven smoking is dangerous to your health and causes cancer. Banning smoking in most areas in an effort to get people to stop is a public health issue and saves billions of dollars in healthcare costs. So there was little debate about the legislation itself although the Post reported Council Chair Mendelson “opposed increasing the age to buy tobacco on philosophical grounds but did not use his powers to block legislation.” He says “he thinks it makes little sense that older teenagers can vote, fight in wars and even run for office — but not buy a legal product.”
The big debate was over the penalties and who should pay them. The majority on the Council agreed both the retailer selling the products to minors and the minor should be penalized. The Post reported, “Council member David Grosso led the fight against penalizing the minor with a civil fine of $50 arguing penalties should fall only on the retailers who illegally sell cigarettes.” In the end the Council decided the fine for youth would be $25 and Grosso, Bonds and Mendelson voted against the bill.
My question to Grosso and Bonds is when do we punish youth for disobeying a law? Is the potential of unfair enforcement a reason to not punish them or do we instead work to ensure fair and equal enforcement of the law?
Though the Council didn’t agree with Mendelson’s reason to oppose the bill, and he let the bill proceed, do we acknowledge his opinion youth between the ages of 18 and 21 should be treated as adults? Do we then hold them responsible for their actions? It is clearly a conundrum.
As a former teacher and someone who has been involved in our education system, K-12 to university, for many years my belief is the only way to ensure our children become full responsible participants in society is to teach them there are consequences for their actions. Not following the rules and laws laid down for them will have repercussions. At the same time we must also teach them how to protest those rules and laws they think are wrong within the system and how to work to change them.
I admire the students who organized the protests against President-elect Trump and walked out of school, but agree with those educators who then held them responsible for their actions and didn’t automatically excuse them from the repercussions of being absent from school without a reason. Hopefully these student demonstrations were followed up and considered a teachable moment with discussions of what it means to vote and participate actively in civil society.
Whether it’s withholding a toy from a young child who acts up, telling a student no TV until they finish their homework, penalizing them for skipping school, or having penalties for lying and cheating, we need to teach our children their actions have consequences. If the law prohibits their buying tobacco products they should face a penalty if they disobey the law.
Grosso and Bonds are wrong and their focus should shift to guaranteeing equal enforcement of all laws, not letting youth off the hook for disobeying a law.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.