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Jerry Brown raises California smoking age to 21, tightens vaping rules

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Gov. Jerry Brown has signed California's most significant new tobacco legislation in decades.
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Gov. Jerry Brown has signed California's most significant new tobacco legislation in decades.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday enacted California’s most significant new tobacco regulations in decades, signing laws that will place tight restrictions on use of the increasingly popular e-cigarette and make California the second state to raise its smoking age to 21.

Brown signed five closely watched bills, which will also expand smoking restrictions in the workplace and on school properties. California now joins jurisdictions like Hawaii, New York City and San Francisco that have bumped the tobacco-buying age to 21 in an effort to block young people’s route to obtaining tobacco.

But Brown vetoed one measure that would have allowed cities and counties to impose local taxes on tobacco products.

“Although California has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation,” he wrote in his veto message, “I am reluctant to approve this measure in view of all the taxes being proposed for the 2016 ballot.”

For public health advocates, Brown’s embrace marked a rare victory in a statehouse where tobacco interests often stub out anti-smoking bills.

“I am in a great mood this evening,” said Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, who authored the bill raising the smoking age. “It’s been decades since we’ve actually done anything to reduce tobacco use.”

He said his measure would save lives and health care costs by removing easy access during the teenage years when most smokers take up the habit.

“It puts the stake in the ground and reaffirms that California is the leader,” he said. “What I hope from this is that the rest of the country follows.”

The political focus for the coalition pushing the bills, which included health groups and organized labor, now shifts to winning a $2-a-pack tax through a November ballot initiative.

Brown’s signature dealt a rebuke to the burgeoning electronic cigarette industry. While soaring adolescent vaping rates have public health officials worried about a new wave of addiction, e-cigarette advocates call their product a safer alternative to tobacco that can help smokers quit.

“California took a step backwards today by reclassifying vapor products as tobacco,” the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association said in an emailed statement. “Stigmatizing vapor products, which contain no tobacco and treating them the same as combustible tobacco while actively seeking to economically penalize smokers attempting to switch is counterproductive to public health.”

The California Retailers Association opposed both raising the purchase age and authorizing local taxes under the premise that, in making tobacco more difficult to obtain, they would encourage illegal cigarettes sales. While President and CEO Bill Dombrowski said he was relieved to avert “a firestorm of local taxes” thanks to Brown’s sole veto, he predicted raising the age would drive transactions underground.

“We’re worried about the black market and the shift of sales to the black market,” Dombrowski said.

The bills took a scenic route to the governor’s desk.

Originally introduced last year, they initially stalled in an Assembly committee awash with money from tobacco companies amid intense industry opposition. But lawmakers revived the concepts during a special session on health care that allowed the measures to circumvent the normal legislative process.

They finally received a vote in March, passing both houses with some bipartisan support. Then the Legislature held the bills for another 43 days.

Democratic leaders hoped to forestall tobacco industry retaliation. As the floor votes loomed, a lobbyist for Altria had threatened to launch a referendum campaign against the new regulations, driving up the price of signatures and undercutting other pending initiatives that are a priority for Democrats this election, including a tax extension on wealthy Californians and a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes.

With the deadline to qualify for the November ballot looming, the tobacco bills were finally sent to Brown in late April. Tobacco company Altria did not respond to requests for comment.

Most of the bills Brown signed Wednesday will take effect on June 9:

▪  Senate Bill X2-5 (Mark Leno, D-San Francisco) will regulate e-cigarettes like traditional tobacco products.

▪  Senate Bill X2-7 (Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa) raises the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21, with an exception for active members of the military.

▪  Assembly Bill X2-7 (Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley) expands California’s smoke-free workplace laws to include self-employed individuals who bring clients to their offices, and removes some exemptions, including for for hotel lobbies, bars and warehouse facilities.

▪  Assembly Bill X2-9 (Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, and Adrin Nazarian, D-Los Angeles) broadens California’s tobacco-free school laws to cover all school property at all times.

▪  Assembly Bill X2-11 (Nazarian) increases the licensing fees for distributing and selling tobacco products, starting in 2017.

Brown did not signal Wednesday’s action, saying as recently as Monday that he had yet to consider the measures.

Brown has taken campaign contributions from cigarette companies, and he vetoed a bill in 2012 to ban smoking in nursing homes.

“While health and safety considerations must prevail, to the extent a resident’s preferences can be accommodated, they should,” Brown wrote in a veto message at the time. “Allowing an elderly resident, who can’t go home and who has smoked for a lifetime, to smoke in a designated indoor area during inclement weather – this sounds reasonable to me.”

Sweeping tobacco control bills that treat electronic cigarettes like tobacco products have been signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Pro-vaping advocate David Hansen had testified against the vaping legislation.

Jeremy B. White and David Siders of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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