Capitol Alert

Bill would raise California smoking age to 21

A man smokes at his home in Sacramento.
A man smokes at his home in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

In an effort to keep cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers, state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, announced legislation that would raise the legal smoking age in California from 18 to 21.

“Tobacco companies know that people are more likely to become addicted to smoking if they start at a young age,” Hernandez said Thursday. “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.”

Nine in 10 smokers take up the habit by age 18, according to the American Lung Association in California, and 36,000 California kids start smoking each year.

Senate Bill 151 would make California the first state in the country to raise the minimum smoking age as high as 21. Similar proposals have previously failed in New Jersey, Utah, Colorado and Maryland, according to Hernandez’s office.

The bill is the latest front in a renewed anti-smoking push in California. A coalition of the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Cancer Society is seeking a $2-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes, either via the Legislature or through an initiative.

The effort has more recently focused on electronic cigarettes. Proposed legislation from state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would prohibit “vaping” in bars, restaurants, hospitals and other workplaces, while state health officials launched a campaign against e-cigarettes on Wednesday.

All efforts will likely face tremendous opposition from tobacco companies, once a toxic political presence, who have again become major players at the state Capitol.

Altria spokesman David Sylvia said the cigarette maker had not yet reviewed SB 151 but supports a minimum age of 18 for all tobacco products, the federal standard. He added that Altria is waiting on a report from the Institute of Medicine about the health implications of raising the smoking age that will be issued to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year.

“We think states and localities should defer to this regulatory process,” Sylvia said. “The FDA is in the best place to make science-based policy and regulations.”

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

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