Berkeley City Council considers raising legal age for purchasing tobacco products

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Phillip Downey/File

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A motion put forward Monday to Berkeley City Council aims to raise the age at which tobacco and electronic cigarettes can legally be purchased.

The proposal, written by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, aims to increase the legal age of purchase to 21 and is intended to reduce the number of minors who smoke. If the ordinance passes, Berkeley will join a number of other areas — such as Healdsburg, California; the state of Hawaii; and New York City — that have all implemented similar laws.

“Berkeley has long been a leader in tobacco control and in improving the health of our citizens,” Arreguin said in an email.

Berkeley was one of the first cities in the United States to ban the use of tobacco in public spaces — such as schools, parks and commercial areas — and has recently passed laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies and use in private multi-unit housing.

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the nation, as tobacco use is responsible for 480,000 deaths per year in the United States.

In recent years, there has been a “huge proliferation” in the usage of electronic cigarettes, a method of smoking in which liquid nicotine is heated and inhaled, according to Arreguin.

Arreguin noted that individuals who began smoking before they were 18 were more likely to become long-term smokers, and minors often obtain tobacco products from people ages 18 to 21.

He also believes that raising the age for tobacco purchases will reduce the number of minors who smoke, noting that cities that have passed “Tobacco 21” laws have seen positive results.

John Balmes, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental health sciences, said the motion is likely an effective way to reduce youth tobacco usage and might even benefit those outside the demographic.

“We know very well that secondhand smoking has hazardous effects on people of all ages,” Balmes said.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, however, was skeptical of the effectiveness of Arreguin’s proposal.

“We should consult with young leaders first. Is there any evidence that many people start smoking between 18 and 21?” Worthington said in an email. “Why discriminate against people who happen to be 18, 19 or 20?

The environmental advantages of the proposal may extend beyond better air quality. It could also possibly reduce the amount of toxic litter and waste entering the San Francisco Bay through storm drains — waste that could subsequently harm the bay’s “wildlife and water quality,” according to Arreguin’s motion.

City Council will discuss Arreguin’s motion at its Sept. 15 meeting, the first meeting after the council’s summer recess.

Contact Ivana Saric at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ivanas26.