California Senate votes to raise minimum age to buy tobacco

The state Senate on Thursday voted to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21, in a move intended to keep millions of young people from getting hooked on what lawmakers describe as a deadly habit that consumes billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

The Senate voted 26-10 to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco, as well as approving a separate bill on a 26-11 vote to clearly define e-cigarettes as a tobacco product.

The Senate votes follow similar approvals last week by the Assembly.

The bills now go to Gov. Jerry Brown, who will have 12 days to decide whether to sign them into law.

A governor’s spokesman said his office generally does not comment on pending legislation.

If signed into law by Brown, California would become only the second state in the nation to raise the age to 21 for buying tobacco. Hawaii changed its law last summer, and the change went into effect Jan. 1.

Health advocates said the actions represent the strongest steps California has taken to fight tobacco use in nearly two decades and will provide momentum for others to follow suit.

At least 135 cities and counties in nine states have already raised the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, sponsor of the over-21 bill, said the opposition from “big tobacco” was fierce, although he indicated it came from behind the scenes, as industry representatives did not testify or write letters.

Their business model depends on marketing and selling “poison to our kids,” he asserted, adding that tobacco industries spent $9 billion on advertising in 2012.

“It’s time for California to lead the way on tobacco control,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, listed a long litany of ailments, from cancer to heart disease, linked to smoking. He cited estimates that nine out of 10 smokers start before age 21, when their brains still are developing, making the habit even more addictive.

“It’s the leading cause of preventable death,” he said, citing Centers for Disease Control statistics that 480,000 deaths per year in the United States are linked to tobacco use.

Since 1965, he said 20 million Americans have died as a result of smoking, including 2.5 million who died from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Sonoma County representatives had a hand in crafting the legislation to boost the minimum age for smoking. Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, was a co-author of the Senate bill.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, was principal author of the bill in the Assembly.

Wood served as Healdsburg mayor when the city in 2014 became the first in the state to pass a ban on the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 21. But the city later suspended the requirement after being threatened with litigation by a tobacco retailers association that argued only the state could raise the minimum age.

Lawyers for the National Association of Tobacco Outlets said the issue was as much about personal rights, because by the time a person turns 18 they can vote, get married and be arrested and charged as an adult, and therefore also should be able to smoke.

The legislation approved Thursday exempts the sale of tobacco to active duty military personnel as a result of a compromise made with some legislators who felt it wasn’t fair that someone could enlist in the service but not buy a pack of cigarettes.

But State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, still objected to the bill because he said it would prevent retired members of the military under the age of 21 from buying cigarettes.

For military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder, smoking cigarettes “helps them cope with the pressure,” he said. He said it will force those under 21 into smoking marijuana instead.

A separate bill that passed Thursday sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, ensures e-cigarettes are defined as tobacco products and that they fall under existing smoke-free laws. It also was framed as way to reduce use by minors and save on health costs.

Leno said Thursday’s action by the Legislature “is a huge victory for public health and the well-being of all Californians.”

“The e-cigarette is nothing more than a new delivery system for toxic and addictive nicotine,” he said in a prepared statement. “We should all be alarmed that these devices are surging in popularity among adolescents who have never smoked before.”

Olivia Gertz, president and CEO of the American Lung Association in California, stated that “with flavors such as bubble gum and Captain Crunch, these products are clearly targeted at our youth, and as a result there has been a rapid increase in e-cigarette use among middle and high school-age children.”

The legislation, she said, “will ensure our youth are protected from a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas.

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