Legalizing Marijuana … While Cracking Down on Tobacco

cigarette smoking ashesGovernor Jerry Brown just signed a package of tobacco regulatory bills sent to him by the California Legislature which is being billed as a “major victory for public health.”

Among the bills signed yesterday, was an increase in the age at which one can consume tobacco products from 18 to 21 and banning the use e-cigarette vaporizers in public places.

What is the point? In case the Legislature has not gotten the memo, the state is poised to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in California on the November 2016 ballot. So we’re legalizing marijuana but cracking down on tobacco – doesn’t that strike anyone around the Capitol as being a bit odd.

Based on polling, we know the public’s favorability of legalizing marijuana has dramatically increased over the last several decades. But is there is there any evidence that the California public is now all of a sudden demanding tougher tobacco regulation? I don’t think so.

As for controlling the use of tobacco by minors, the California Legislature is about 30 years too late. This type of legislation may have mattered in 1988 when California voters passed the first of its kind Prop. 99 which increased taxes on tobacco to fund public health programs. At that time, the Legislature was completely captured by the tobacco industry, and it has taken about 40 years to wean state lawmakers off campaign contributions from “big tobacco.”

Prop. 99 was found to have significantly reduced tobacco use and fatalities in California. At this time, public health advocates were calling for the California Legislature to send a message to the tobacco industry to quit targeting are kids and do something about the tobacco epidemic.

But 30 years later, this type of restriction is basically meaningless, and done more for appearances than any actual public policy benefit.

In the meantime, the Legislature has collected large amounts of tobacco campaign contributions, most of it funneled through the California Democratic Party, for a very long time. And now that those campaign contributions are starting to dry up, they decide it is now time to “get tough on tobacco.”

This is another example of the California Legislature trying to create a major legislative victory out of nothing, so it looks like they are doing a good job on policy issues such as “protecting public health,” and “standing up to big tobacco” in the run up to the 2016 election.

The reality is that raising the smoking age will not do much if anything to curb tobacco use. Research shows that most kids start smoking before age 18, and that restricting use to age 18 is not effective at preventing use to begin with.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 80 percent of all adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18; and more than 90 percent do so before leaving their teens.

So what’s the Legislature’s solution, increase the smoking age to 21, even longer after teens have already started smoking. Moreover, making it illegal to smoke could even enhance its appeal to teens, and serve to be counter productive.

As for banning the e-vaporizers in public. These are intended to help people stop smoking by providing a smoke-less alternative. The smoking cessation industry has already criticized the banning of these instruments as being counterproductive to reducing tobacco use.

In California, individuals are considered to be “adults” at age 18, so why shouldn’t they be able to make their own decisions at that age regarding tobacco use. Does the California Legislature really need to tell legal adults everything that they should and should not be doing?

The last thing California needs is the California Legislature trying to act as the “responsible adult” on every marginal issue. Adding insult to injury, is California lawmakers “declaring victory” against an industry that has been one of their core supporters for the last 40 plus years.

Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily