California lawmakers debate raising smoking age to 21
Sweeping tobacco control bills raising California’s smoking age to 21 and treating electronic cigarettes as tobacco products passed the state Assembly on Thursday and should soon go before Gov. Jerry Brown.
Both bills now return to the Senate, where they are expected to pass, for a final vote before landing on Brown’s desk. Senate Bill 7, which raises the smoking age, passed 46-26 with five Democrats voting no and two Republicans – both facing tough re-election bids – in support. Senate Bill 5, which regulates e-cigarettes as tobacco products, passed 50-20 with three Democrats not voting. A spokeswoman for Brown declined to comment, in keeping with the governor’s general policy.
The votes to advance the two measures marked a major victory for public health advocates who previously failed to push the policies through and have struggled to overcome the tobacco industry’s influence in Sacramento. Without directly naming tobacco companies, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, said the bill was “aggressively lobbied by entities” who did not publicly register their opposition.
“They didn’t meet with me,” said Wood. “They didn’t testify in committee.”
Backers said raising the cigarette-buying age to 21 would discourage youth smoking that can morph into lifelong addiction. They drew comparisons to a decrease in traffic fatalities when the drinking age rose. Amendments exempt active-duty military members, who could still buy cigarettes at 18 with a military ID. The bill specifically addresses buying, not possessing, tobacco.
“Adolescent brains are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction,” said Wood, and “18-year-olds are much more likely to buy tobacco products for their 14-, 15-, 16-year-old friends.”
Republicans vigorously objected to the bill, first trying to block a vote and then calling it nonsensical to deprive 18-year-olds of cigarettes when they can vote, join the military and serve on juries.
“Is this a state that believes in the idea of individual liberty, in the freedom of choice, and that you can buy the products that you want even though they might harm you?” asked Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley. “I submit to you that we have moved beyond our basic ideals.”
A Reynolds American Incorporated spokesman declined to comment. In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Altria backed a national minimum age of 18 and argued policymakers should give the federal Food and Drug Administration time to study potentially changing the age.
“Congress should allow the FDA the opportunity to evaluate the science and share its findings with Congress before it considers legislative proposals,” spokesman David Sutton said. “We also believe states and localities should defer to this process and give the FDA and Congress the opportunity to evaluate this issue before enacting different minimum age laws.
Raising the age to buy tobacco would not be unprecedented. New York City and Hawaii have made the age 21, and the San Francisco supervisors voted earlier this week to do the same. Under threat of a lawsuit, the city of Healdsburg has suspended its ordinance boosting the age.
Major tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds spent $1 million lobbying lawmakers in 2015. R.J. Reynolds also gave $240,000 to candidates and campaign committees last year, while Philip Morris contributed $1 million, including $200,000 to the California Republican Party.
Democrats who voted against or abstained on the tobacco measures received at least $26,000 from the two companies last year. In November and December, they gave a combined $35,000 to a ballot committee run by Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat who chairs the influential Governmental Organization Committee and voted against raising the smoking age to 21.
The two Republicans who voted for the bill, Catharine Baker of Dublin and David Hadley of Manhattan Beach, returned almost $11,000 in contributions from the tobacco companies over the summer.
In remarks to reporters after the vote, Assembly Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, called the tobacco industry “a strong force in this town” and alluded to “threats involving electoral efforts” against legislators.
“It’s exceptionally aggressive,” Rendon said.
With teen e-cigarette use surging as traditional smoking declines, public health officials and advocates have focused on regulating vaping. They warn of the product’s appeal to young people, noting that nicotine-containing vaping fluids come in an array of fruity flavors, and point to major tobacco companies investing in e-cigarettes as a sign that they are the next front in tobacco control wars.
“We cannot allow our next generation to become addicted to these new and unhealthy tobacco products,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda.
E-cigarette companies and industry groups have denounced efforts to treat their products as tobacco, arguing that they are smoking cessation devices.
“Our industry supports reasonable regulations, but not legislation that equates vapor products with tobacco,” Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association president Cynthia Cabrera said in an emailed statement. “Vapor products are fundamentally different than combustible cigarettes and do not contain tobacco. By equating the two, we miss a profound opportunity to reduce the public harm caused by smoking.
After both measures stumbled in committee last year, legislators resurrected them through a special health care session. But Assembly Democrats declined to put them to a floor vote on the final night of the 2015 session after deciding during a lengthy caucus that they lacked the votes, according to legislators who were present.
By Thursday the time to act had dwindled. Landmark legislation allowing dying Californians to obtain lethal drugs, passed last year, cannot take effect until lawmakers end the special health care session. With a long-sought health care tax deal coming together this week, lawmakers faced increasing pressure to wrap things up.
After the bills passed, the Assembly voted to close the special session. The Senate is expected to follow suit next week, starting the clock for implementation of the assisted dying law.
Assembly Republicans moved to terminate the special session even before the bills could come up for a vote, arguing that Democrats were distorting the intent of the special session to ram through policy.
“This is an abuse of the process and it makes a mockery of the state Assembly,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, who withheld votes on both bills.
Hanging over tobacco bills is a campaign for a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes. A coalition of health care and labor groups is pursuing the tax via a ballot initiative, having failed to persuade lawmakers to impose the tax, and that same group issued a floor alert urging legislators to vote for the tobacco bills.
While voters will get a say on the $2-a-pack statewide tax in November, Assembly members on Thursday also passed a measure allowing cities and counties to put a local tobacco tax increase on the ballot. Republicans unsuccessfully argued the measure should require a two-thirds vote, since it affects taxes, and Assembly Bill 10 passed 44-24.
“Increasing the cost of cigarettes is the most powerful and direct way to reduce smoking,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.