281. "Let Teens Bust Cigarette Sellers," Philadelphia Inquiry, (June 1996) p. A21.

We have a little militia man in each of us, and he refuses to get out. We are still reluctant to recognize the necessity of a firm authority to maintain social order. Take the most recent fuss about the use of teenagers in sting operations whose purpose is to reduce the sale of cigarettes to minors. The police are sending 15-year-olds, who show their age (not some of those overgrown hunks), to try to buy smokes. When cigarettes are sold to these minors, the offending party is warned the first time and fined as much as $125 thereafter. When liquor is also sold to minors, the business license may be revoked.

This type of sting operation is reported to take place in at least 17 states and is fostered by the National Cancer Institute. (Given that as many as 54% of the merchants are found to violate the law in some parts of the country, Madison, Wisconsin for instance, the fines suffice to cover a good part of the cost.) Most interesting, in several communities teens have organized themselves into anti-smoking squads, who identify merchants who illegally sell cigarettes and chewing tobacco, and who call the police all on their own.

At first blush, it would seem that preventing the sale of death nails (as cigarettes were called long before science established the aptness of this early folk characterization) would bring nothing but cheer. The public and personal good involved is crystal clear: According to the CDC, the damage cigarettes cause to health in the USA exceeds that of drugs, alcohol, automobile accidents, and AIDS combined.

All this may be true, both libertarians and the tobacco lobby argue, but each individual should be free to choose what they wish to do with their life. The facts about the secondary effects of smoking (that is, on non-smokers) are fairly contested. And, there are no net public costs, ghoulish economists tell us, because smokers die younger than the rest of us, and often do not live long enough to collect their social security.

We tend to forget, when we are subjected to the free-choice rhetoric, that choice is a right of adults. When children are involved, parents, educators, and communities have a duty to protect them--including limiting their choices, from how late they stay up to how they drive--until they are "brought up" to be able to make responsible choices of their own. Most smokers these days (89% to be specific) start smoking before they reach the age of 18. Given that teens become addicted before they reach a stage at which they can make mature decisions, it is our obligation to help them ward off cigarettes and other addictive substances. Ergo, laws that prohibit selling cigarettes to minors are not merely there, because some old-fashioned or paternalistic legislature enacted them; they seem quite justified.

And, the militia man in us oddly needs to be reminded, laws are meant to be reinforced. According to police reports, cigarettes are sold to minors rather freely in many parts of the country. When laws are ignored with impunity, we are left with more than a new generation of addicts; we teach youngsters disrespect for the law.

A subtle indication of how reluctant we are to support authority can be gleaned from the fact that the powers-that-be find it necessary to provide merchants advance warning about the stings. The mere existence of a law (and elementary decency) seems insufficient as grounds for action. Extra warnings need to be issued to those who violate the law: "Watch out this week; you may be caught." Otherwise, we may consider that the police acted "unfairly" as if we were playing cops and robbers, and the cops are the only ones who have sneakers.

Still my liberal friends are in a tizzy. Getting teens to snitch to the police, ratting on their neighbors or parents to the government, agitates the militia man in them. Actually neither neighbors nor parents are involved. Nobody is asking the children of the shopkeepers, or those who live next door, to sting those they are personally close to. Moreover, while in some previous ages, when values where strong and laws were vigilantly enforced, the need to keep authorities from overpowering the citizens was paramount. Given our declining social order--shoring up public authorities has become the order of the day. Such shoring up is impossible if we block every new tactic communities come up with to curb the violations of the law. Stings, when they do not involve entrapment, when they do not entice individuals to commit crimes they otherwise would not be inclined to commit, are such a tool.

Teens would do well (and those who work with teen might wish to encourage them) to learn to draw on their moral voice before they turn to the police. Anti-smoking activists may express their concerns to first-time offenders by sending letters to the shopkeepers when they are first caught in the act, expressing their concerns about such behavior. And teens would do well to picket the shops of repeat offenders.

But when these civic measures fail, collaboration with the police is part of one's civic duty and not an un-American act.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon and Schuster, 1994) and the director of the George Washington University Center for Communitarian Policy Studies. He may be reached at etzioni@gwu.edu.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu