Calif. Bill Aims to Up Legal Smoking Age to 21
Los Angeles - A bill moving quickly through the California legislature would raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 - the highest in the nation.
Three states - Utah, Alabama and Alaska - set a minimum age of 19 for smoking. For the rest, the minimum age is 18.
Advocates concede the higher age limit would not prevent teenagers from smoking, because most could get tobacco from adults and older friends. But they insist it would make becoming addicted far more difficult.
"One or two cigarettes are not going to get anyone addicted, even one or two a day," said Democratic Assemb. Paul Koretz, the measure's chief sponsor. "We know kids will smoke the occasional cigarette no matter what we do. But we're not really going after youth smoking per se. We're really targeting addiction."
"To become addicted, you pretty much have to be able to buy a pack a day and this will make it much harder for 14- to 17-year-olds to do that," he said. "It's a lot easier for a convenience store clerk to tell that a 16-year-old is not really 21 than to tell when a teenager is not 18."
Koretz has taken on tobacco before. As a city councilman in the liberal Los Angeles enclave of West Hollywood, he authored one of the first laws banning smoking in restaurants. That measure and a few other local ones like it were precursors of current state laws mandating smoke-free restaurants, bars and offices. Some California cities now are considering bans on smoking in parks or other public places.
So far, there is little opposition to the increased age limit. The measure already has cleared the state Senate's health committee and appears headed for passage by early fall. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis has not indicated whether he would sign it. Davis, however, previously has targeted tobacco and supports an increase in the state's cigarette tax. Various proposals before the legislature would raise it as high as $1.52 per pack, edging slightly ahead of New York State's tax, recently increased to $1.50.
Even tobacco companies are not speaking loudly against the bill. "We think setting a minimum age for purchase of cigarettes is a social issue," Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette maker, said in a news release. "We have focused our efforts on enforcement of existing laws that prohibit youth access to tobacco products."
Koretz said the impetus for the proposed age limit increase arose from a California Medical Association resolution requesting it. That recommendation was based on figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported in December that even though youth smoking has decreased significantly, every day nearly 5,000 persons younger than 18 try their first smoke. The CDC also said 80 percent of adult smokers became addicted before they were 18.
"If we can prevent even one 18-year-old from becoming addicted, our bill is worthwhile," Koretz said. "The key is blocking daily access."
But some 18- and 19-year-olds don't agree. "If you can vote and go to war at 18," said Vanessa Kepker, a 20-year-old student at West Los Angeles College, "you should be able to drink and have a smoke when you feel like it."