SUBSCRIBE NOW Get a year of news PLUS a gift box!



Port: Isn't choice better than force?

We should be cautious about making public policy which will inevitably be widely disrespected.

Keyframe - Vape.jpg
We are part of The Trust Project.

MINOT, N.D. — Congress seems set to pass a law raising the age for legal tobacco use to 21 .

Here in North Dakota, Devils Lake already adopted an age-21 ordinance for tobacco use and vaping, though it's probably not legal for reasons I've explained previously .

They're lumping in vaping with this move, which is unfair because that delivery mechanism for nicotine is not equivalent, in terms of health and social impacts, to traditional tobacco use. But that's beside the point for the purposes of this post.

What I'm wondering is why we need to tell adults not to use tobacco?

In the United States, someone who is 18 years of age is, by law, an adult. They can make all sorts of decisions for themselves ranging from voting to military service. Yet in some areas of law we treat 18-year-olds like anything but adults.


Drinking is one example. Tobacco seems set to be another.

I understand the motivations behind this change in policy. Though legally adults, 18-year-olds still aren't terribly mature, and the use of substances like alcohol and tobacco come with real risks. A very large faction of the public doesn't want 18, 19 and 20-year-olds to do unhealthy things.

But what are we accomplishing by forcing healthy decisions on them with law?

Wouldn't it be better if they were inspired to make healthier decisions for themselves?

Before you accuse me of being pollyannish, consider that it's not all that easy to enforce these laws. A 19-year-old who really, really wants to drink or smoke is going to do it. Much like the age-21 drinking law, this new prohibition on tobacco use will be widely flouted.

We should be cautious about making public policy which will inevitably be widely disrespected.

There is an old adage, in the military, which holds that you should not issue an order you know won't be obeyed. The thinking is that it undermines the respect for the commander giving the order.

What, then, can we say of silly government prohibitions which are widely disobeyed?


The rebuttal is that our society has yet to issue a law — from murder down to jaywalking — that hasn't been broken by someone. That's fair, to a point. We don't need laws to prohibit things people aren't doing anyway.

Some things just need to be illegal, and it doesn't matter how many people do those things anyway.

But is smoking or vaping, as a legal adult, really one of them?

I'm not so sure.

Instead of lobbying for more restrictive regulations on tobacco and vaping sales, why not invest those resources in informing the public about the risks of those activities?

Again, we're better off inspiring people to make better choices than we are trying to regulate those choices for them.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.


Rob Port column sig
Rob Port

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
What to read next
Tim Mahoney has earned another term as Fargo mayor. Dave Piepkorn has earned another term as Fargo city commissioner and Denise Kolpack is our pick for the open seat on the Fargo City Commission.
Among other extreme stances, far-right candidate calls for imprisonment of political opponent
Our beloved peregrine falcons, those magnificent birds that have called downtown Fargo home for more than 20 years, have lost their nesting platform on the Bell Bank building.
Scott and Ollenburger were front and center in the flopped recall of four board members last year over the district's mask mandate. The recall failed because more than 6,000 petition signatures were deemed invalid, mostly because they were signed by people who didn't live in the Fargo school district. It was a stunning show of incompetence.