Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Branded by Social Media

The month of June means time for Beach Week, an annual, mid-Atlantic tradition. Celebrating the end of an academic year, unchaperoned high school and college students rent houses, inhabit hotels, and populate the beaches. It is a tradition dating to 1982 or earlier, when the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh, now the most junior US Supreme Court Justice, infamously attended.  During his recent Senate Confirmation process, lawmakers perused fading photographs, yearbooks, a Mark Judge novel, and hazy memories; looking for evidence of unsuitability and lapses in personal judgement.
Times are different today for the young. Smartphones and social media eliminate the possibility of plausible deniability; instead indemnifying any young adult who made a juvenile decision. Such is the case of Kyle Kashuv, whose admissions to Harvard University in Boston was rescinded for social media posts made at age 16. 

Laden with casually-strewn racial slurs, the posts reflect on Kashuv’s maturity at the time, and on the society in which he was raised. That was in Parkland, Florida. Rachel Slade, author of Into the Raging Seas, noted the state’s proclivity to racial slurs and use of the n-word. Fittingly to this case, William Faulkner’s  The Sound and the Fury, set in the 1920’s, demonstrated the culture clash between Southern racial hierarchies and Boston’s progressive attitudes on racial equality.   Today’s Harvard talks the talk of promoting racial justice. Does it walk the walk?

  Since World War Two, the US Army has taken a proactive role in fighting this kind of ingrained racism. In an era that still had segregated lunch counters, Blacks were assigned as Sergeants in charge of turning Southern White recruits into soldiers, physically and morally. Fixing prejudice hands-on, as the US Army has done, is something Harvard has shown unwillingness to do, in rescinding a young man’s admission letter. A more important observation, though, is that the digitally-native Generation Z is coming of age in a zero-defect culture; while previous generations got a pass on their youthful indiscretions- even into the Ivy League.   

“We are sorry about the circumstances that have led us to withdraw your admission, and we wish you success in your future academic endeavors and beyond”, wrote Dr. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions in a personal letter to Kashuv. 

(Source: Patricia Mazzei, NY Times, 6/17/19)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tobacco 21 in the Tobacco Colony

It’s late at night in Arlington, Virginia, Fall of 2010. My friend, then a high school senior, walks into the local corner store with five dollars, and buys a pack of cigarettes to kick off his 18th birthday celebration. A high school kid, a social influencer perhaps, with a legal pack of cigarettes in his backpack. He drew a cigarette out of his pocket, after class at the train station, with the suave of a 1950’s movie star. That is the problem, Dr. Northam, then a state senator, would argue. At the time, most Virginia restaurants had just gone smoke-free, at the insistence of Dr. Northam. He had a larger agenda in his sleeve. 

While negative effects of tobacco use have been known for 50 years, youth smoking as a pathology has only garnered attention for the past quarter-century. The smoking age in the greater DC area, and much of the South, was 16 into the 1990’s. For a few years that decade, there was a five-year gap between a smoking age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. Smoking just wasn’t a big deal.
Who would’ve thought that Virginia, with its four centuries of tobacco history, and continued influence of Big Tobacco, would be among the first to raise the smoking age to 21? It’s more surprising in light of a political culture that makes the Commonwealth “behind the times” on legislating social issues, from clean government reforms, to LGBT issues, boater education, semiautomatic rifles and handheld cell phones while driving. This new tobacco law, passed in February, will take effect in July. It is a very comprehensive law- on the proportions of Singapore or Sri Lanka: this change raises the age to both purchase and use of nicotine.

Neighboring Washington, DC raised its tobacco purchase age last year. Presumably, the many DC college kids interested in a tobacco fix would walk half a mile across the Key Bridge to Arlington, Virginia. Some of Georgetown University’s dormitories are actually in Virginia instead of DC. But this arbitrage in smoking age, a possible boon for small retailers, is nothing to be protected in what is an emergent science-driven economy. After all, Arlington, VA just snagged Amazon’s second headquarters. So legislation based on science (“smoking is bad for your health”), not superstition and presumptions (“protect tradition”) gets an upper hand in a New South state.    

Raising the smoking age in Virginia probably wouldn’t have happened if but for a perfect alignment of political power. A governor who is a pediatrician, a house majority leader who is a school teacher, and Big Tobacco (Altria of Richmond, VA) that approves the change. Dr. Northam, the Democratic governor, made changing the state’s tobacco culture a legislative priority. Kirk Cox, the Republican house majority leader, recalls the days when middle school students smoked in the school bathrooms, and is concerned about the current rise of the Juul e-cigarette. Other states are trying to pass similar bills to raise the smoking age, but they most often failed after passing one house of legislature: with apparent exception of Virginia, it is not a pressing priority outside of the Northeast and West Coast, places where “Nanny State” legislation is in vogue.

Virginia will allow active-duty military to continue purchasing tobacco at 18. With a carveout for military members, I predict loose enforcement of a higher smoking age in the military-heavy Tidewater region. It remains to be seen how this law will be enforced in college towns: the specific target of Tobacco 21 is high school smoking and vaping, while younger college students are merely “collateral impact” of the new laws. In the advent of Virginia's unique approach of a dual smoking age*, (18 for some, 21 for others), major retailers such as Walgreens and Wal-Mart have decided to stop selling nicotine products to young adults under 21, nationwide.

* California allows on-base sales at 18, while retaining minimum age of 21 "outside the gate". Maryland and Vermont will soon join Virginia with a dual smoking age