Teenagers who start smoking don't do so because it's healthy - it's either for image or bodily effect. And they often believe they are immune from tobacco's addictive and other unhealthy effects.
Do such adolescent misconceptions justify government regulation of tobacco? That's the key issue in a case now before the Supreme Court, that centers on whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can regulate tobacco.
The justices, in their questions during arguments last week, stuck to the letter of the law in appearing to spot holes in the government's arguments. Citing tobacco's deadly nature, they seemed to suggest that FDA would need to ban, not regulate tobacco. Did Congress really set up the FDA to ban any harmful product that is inhaled or ingested by choice?
It's likely that the court's ruling, due in a few months, may throw this debate back to Congress by deciding that the FDA, under the current law, can't protect teenagers from the marketing reach of tobacco companies.
The legal arguments are technical. The FDA, which has jurisdiction over drugs and devices "intended to affect the structure or any function of the body," is generally required to authorize the sale of only those drugs that are "safe and effective." Even the tobacco industry now admits its product is not safe.
Smoking has become the biggest health issue in the United States, and it's taken decades of hard work by anti-tobacco activists to bring a big case before the high court. They've chosen the legal route because most politicians - being either afraid of Big Tobacco's wrath or beholden to its money - have ducked the issue.
But recent declines in the number of people smoking are due more to an increased desire for healthy living generally than warnings about tobacco's effects or exposure of the manipulation of truth by tobacco companies.
Individuals are leading the government in understanding that craving for a chemical believed to produce an altered mental state only serves to deny life, liberty, and true happiness. Somehow, the three branches of government can come together to support people in that enlightened choice.
The high court's own choice in the FDA case should help lead the government in that better direction.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society