California Legislature passes bill to raise legal smoking age to 21

Mikaela Raphael/Staff

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On Thursday, the California state Legislature passed Senate Bill 7, which will raise the minimum legal smoking age from 18 to 21 statewide if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

SB 7 was introduced last July by state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, as part of a legislative package that comprises six bills, all aimed at reducing tobacco use. In addition to raising the smoking age, bills in the package would classify electronic cigarettes as tobacco products and allow local governments to levy additional taxes on such products.

Joel Moskowitz, director of the campus Center for Family and Community Health, noted the importance of reducing overall tobacco use by targeting efforts at adolescents. According to Moskowitz, 95 percent of smokers pick up the habit before turning 21.

“If they don’t start as adolescents, as young adults, they’re probably not going to take up smoking,” Moskowitz said.

The package of legislation was introduced last summer when Brown called an extraordinary session to address a funding gap in Medi-Cal and its long-term costs, according to Lindsey Freitas, senior director of tobacco control and lung health at the California Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing. Legislation aimed at preventing tobacco use, according to Freitas, would reduce tobacco-related illnesses and lower health care costs, which are often paid for by public Medi-Cal funds.

Brown is unable to comment on pending legislation, according to spokesperson Deborah Hoffman.

Several state senators were skeptical about the bill’s effectiveness. State Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said in an email that she was opposed to the bill on the grounds that people’s personal liberty should be protected regardless of the reported health consequences of tobacco use.

“I’m sure plenty of minors are smoking without concern about the current minimum age of 18,” said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, in an email, regarding compliance with the bill. “I don’t expect human nature to change, whether in or out of a university.”

Moskowitz, on the other hand, is confident that the bill would have a significant impact on smoking prevalence, despite some inevitable noncompliance. Moreover, the bill would require minimal implementation costs, according to Paul Ramey, spokesperson for the principal coauthor of the bill, Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg.

Freitas also noted the importance of local momentum in places such as UC Berkeley for generating support for legislation aimed at raising the smoking age. Rob Crane, president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, added that it has generally been easier to raise the minimum smoking age at local levels because members of City Council are less likely than state legislators to receive large donations from cigarette companies.

“I think, across the board, we will see substantial improvements in people’s health, life expectancy (and) decreased medical care costs,” Moskowitz said.

Contact Anna Dell’Amico at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adellamico_dc.