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Soldiers can fight, but they won’t be able to smoke

ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla.--An Airman from the 97th Air Mobility Wing holds a cigarette outside of his place of work. According to the United States Marine Corps National Health Naval Research Center, Tobacco kills as many Americans as in all our wars combined. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Leandra D. Stepp)

Everyone knows about death and taxes. This is a story about war, tobacco and how much power teenagers don’t have, including the ones who sign up for military service.

First, though, here’s a bit of background on how America’s youngest warriors enlightened the country at the highest personal cost. One was a kid from my old neighborhood.

Marine Pfc. Miguel Naranjo Jr., was just 18 when he died in combat in South Vietnam. He was too young to vote. What’s more, this wasn’t unusual.

More than 58,000 American service members died in Vietnam. Almost 25 percent were between 17 and 19 years old.

Naranjo and the rest became a symbol for one of the great political movements. Politicians had deemed these soldiers old enough to fight their war, but too immature to vote. The minimum age to cast a ballot in those days was 21.

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The sacrifices of raw recruits such as Naranjo helped in passing the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971. It lowered the voting age to 18.

More wars have followed. Young people are still fighting them, now as part of America’s all-volunteer armed forces.

They have voting rights, but it appears they soon won’t be able to buy tobacco or e-cigarettes.

Congress has approved a bill banning the sale of these products to anyone under 21, and President Donald Trump signed it into law.

New Mexico is just one of the states taking extra steps to guarantee the age increase — and no exceptions for military service members.

In New Mexico alone, five Democrats in the state Legislature have a fallback plan, just in case the federal legislation stalls or proves ineffective. They have filed their own bill on tobacco restrictions that is similar to the one in Congress.

“Since we don’t know about the details of enforcement of the federal legislation, we’ve decided to go ahead with our own proposal,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.

The measure she is helping carry, State House Bill 66, would ban the sale of tobacco products, e-cigarettes and liquid containers of nicotine to anyone under 21.

A similar bill that was debated in New Mexico last winter contained an exception for members of the military who are younger than 21. They could have continued purchasing tobacco products. That proposal to dent the tobacco industry cleared the Senate but died in the House of Representatives.

New Mexico’s latest bill to ban sales of tobacco products to people under 21 eliminates the exemption for soldiers.

“We talked about that provision very seriously, but removed it because the military itself wants to curb tobacco use,” said Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces.

A government that sends young soldiers into bomb-filled towns but makes it illegal for them to buy tobacco might sound inconsistent. But Thomson and Ferrary say a prohibition on tobacco sales to people younger than 21 is smart policy.

“We’re trying to kill off tobacco before it kills off more people,” Thomson said. “Yes, I understand that young people can go to war, but 18-year-olds aren’t the greatest judges of anything.”

People who reach 21 without getting hooked on cigarettes are likely never to become tobacco users, Thomson said. That will be her pitch in seeking support for the bill.

Those younger than 21 shouldn’t expect to have government-approved access to marijuana, either.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, is writing a bill that would legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico. He has settled on 21 as the minimum age for anyone to purchase the drug. This would be consistent with state law on selling alcohol.

On occasion, other lawmakers have said the age limit on recreational cannabis should be even higher.

State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, once amended a cannabis bill to make 25 the minimum age for recreational users.

Brandt cited research on brain development in arguing that a mind-altering drug should not be available to anyone younger than 25. That bill to legalize recreational cannabis failed anyway, as Brandt and every other Republican voted against it.

Thomson says state government owes it to young people, soldiers included, to make tobacco off-limits.

“I figure if we can do it for alcohol, we can do it for cigarettes,” she said.

That’s where it stands. Government still hires youthful soldiers, and it still restricts what they can do in other parts of life.

But at least now they have recourse. Pfc. Naranjo and thousands of other fallen soldiers helped give the ballot to 18-year-olds.

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© 2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican