Up in Smoke


     On Wednesday, May 4, Governor Jerry Brown signed bills that will raise California’s smoking age from 18 to 21, following the example set by Hawaii earlier this year, as well as restrict public electronic cigarette use and expand no-smoking zones at public schools. The bills were approved during a special health care session and will take effect on June 9, sooner than the 2017 date of other bills.

The anti-smoking bills were approved by state legislature in March with the support of several medical groups including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and the California Medical Association. The tobacco industry, however, was furious and threatened to seek a referendum vote that would overturn the bills once the governor had approved the bill. In order to elude attacks from the tobacco industry, the bill was kept from Governor Brown’s desk for over a month, thus delaying his signature and preventing the rise of a referendum. Marlboro

“The governor’s signature on Tobacco 21 is a signal that California presents a united front against Big Tobacco,” stated Senator Ed Hernandez. “Together, we stand to disrupt the chain of adolescent addiction.”

The bills also reclassified electronic cigarettes and “vaping” devices—both of which use nicotine, which is what makes cigarettes so addictive—as tobacco products, banning their use where smoking is banned and preventing their distributors from marketing toward children. This gave rise to criticism from the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents makers of electronic cigarettes.

“California took a step backwards today by reclassifying vapor products as tobacco,” argued the group. “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.”

Some may also oppose raising the smoking age with the common argument that if 18-year-olds can join the military, they should also be able to smoke. Well, this issue was dealt with in advance as the bills provide an exception for people in active military service.

Supporters of the bill were quick to remind others that tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 90% of tobacco users start before the age of 21, and 80% are first exposed to it before the age of 18. In 2015, estimates from the Institute of Medicine suggest that raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 will result in 200,000 fewer premature deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019.

“It is long past due for California to update our approach to tobacco, and with the governor’s signature on these life-saving bills, we have done just that,” commented Steven Larson, president of the California Medical Association.

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