New Bill Could Raise Legal Smoking Age to 21

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em — maybe.

A new wave of anti-smoking legislation is wafting through the halls of the state Capitol. And it’s been more than four years since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger folded his cigar “smoking tent” on the Capitol grounds.

First out of the pack is a bill that would boost the smoking age statewide to 21 years from the current 18. Tapping into longstanding fears concerning children and public health, legislators have teed up a stronger political conflict around health care costs and personal responsibility.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, is the author of Senate Bill 151, an expansion of the so-called Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement Act, or STAKE.

Existing law prohibits the furnishing of tobacco products to, and the purchase of tobacco products by, a person under 18 years of age. According to the new bill’s language:

“A person is prohibited from making various promotional or advertising offers of smokeless tobacco products without taking actions to ensure that the product is not available to persons under 18 years of age. Existing law also requires the State Department of Public Health to conduct random, onsite sting inspections of tobacco product retailers with the assistance of persons under 18 years of age.”

SB151 revises those provisions such that Californians under 21 years of age are covered. And it authorizes random compliance inspections of retailers by the State Department of Public Health.

In a statement, Hernandez cast his bill as essential to preventing children from becoming addicted to cigarettes. “We can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines while big tobacco markets to our kids and gets another generation of young people hooked on a product that will ultimately kill them,” he said.

Defining children upward

But the Sacramento Bee reported something about SB151 on Hernandez’ own website. The site quotes the California branch of the American Lung Association saying 90 percent of smokers begin before they turn 19.

Critics of raising the smoking age also point out that people age 18 can vote, join the military and get a driver’s license without parental permission. And although the drinking age in California is 21, that’s because drunkenness can cause immediate harm to others, especially through car accidents.

Although the numbers does not make a strong case for Hernandez’s level of concern, the numbers likely don’t matter to his legislation’s fortunes. According to the Los Angeles Times, SB151 already counts the support of the American Cancer Society, the California Medical Association and, importantly, the American Lung Association.

The Times reports, “Smoking contributes to the deaths of more than 40,000 Californians each year, according to Kimberly Amazeen, vice president for the American Lung Association in California. She said 21,300 California kids start smoking each year.”

Targeting e-cigarettes

As the Washington Times notes, legislation similar to SB151 has failed elsewhere across the country, including in Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey and Utah. California, however, boasts a stronger anti-smoking constituency and a more effective anti-smoking lobby than those states.

In yet another demonstration of many Californians’ preference for prohibition, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced an anti-smoking bill of his own. SB140 would restrict “vaping” e-cigarettes to the same extent that smoking traditional cigarettes is restricted.

As the Bee reports, Leno’s rhetoric focuses on the addictive qualities of smoking in the same manner as Hernandez’s. Leno said in a statement:

“No tobacco product should be exempt from California’s smoke-free laws simply because it’s sold in a modern or trendy disguise. Addiction is what’s really being sold. Like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a cloud of other toxic chemicals, and their use should be restricted equally under state law in order to protect public health.”

Although e-cigarettes are demonstrably safer than traditional cigarettes to smokers and bystanders, the science is secondary to the cultural politics that surround vaping.

As the San Francisco Chronicle observes, “California bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but other efforts to legislate them have failed. State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, originally proposed stronger restrictions in 2013, but the language in her proposed bill was watered down to ban e-cigarette sales in vending machines and was defeated in an Assembly committee last year.”

E-cigarettes are widely seen as both a popular substitute for traditional cigarettes and as a more tempting option for people who would not consider taking up traditional smoking. That tension helps account for the push for increased regulation and for the failure of recent legislation to meet its mark.

Originally published at CalWatchdog.com