California may be following in Hawaii’s footsteps by becoming the second state in the US to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21. This would prevent individuals under the age of 18 to purchase or consume any tobacco products, which includes e-cigarettes, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. This measure would also increase smoking bans, expand smoke-free areas, and allow counties within the state to increase the taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. Ultimately, the bill is just one example of the major effort to end teen smoking and tobacco use in general that has swept the nation in recent years.
Supporters of the movement claim that the bill will curb high school smoking significantly. Many smokers begin smoking before the age of 18 and often ask older friends to purchase their tobacco products for them. By raising the smoking age to 21, high school and middle school students will have more limited access to tobacco products through their friends. While younger students between the ages of 14 and 17 go to school with their older, senior friends in high school, see them almost every day, and have plenty of opportunities to ask them to purchase tobacco products for them, not many high school students are exposed to people 21 and up that they would be able to ask. Therefore, they will not have access to as many opportunities to purchase tobacco products. A 2015 study by the Institute of Medicine predicted that if the legal age to purchase tobacco were raised to 21 across the nation, there would be a 12% decrease in overall tobacco use by the time today’s teens became adults, 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths, and 223,000 fewer premature deaths. Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood stated that “this (bill) will save the medical system in the outgoing years millions of dollars… It will save thousands of lives”.
This bill faced major opposition from many Republicans as well as the major tobacco companies. Tobacco companies have fairly obvious reasons for opposing the bill; raising the age requirement for purchasing tobacco products means fewer customers for them. Republican members of the California Assembly argued that while they are not encouraging smoking by any means, they believe that legal adults should be able to make decisions for themselves and that the state should not be involved in managing its citizen’s personal choices. Republican Assemblyman Donald Wagner stated, “I don’t smoke. I don’t encourage my children to (smoke). But they’re adults and it’s our job to treat our citizens as adults, not to nanny them”. At 18, citizens can join the military, register to vote, sign contracts, consent to sex, and ultimately make nearly all of their own legal decisions. Opponents argued that if an 18-year-old can join the military and die for the country, he or she should be able to decide whether or not to smoke cigarettes or otherwise consume tobacco. The bill was then changed to allow members of the military to continue to purchase tobacco products at age 18 in response to the argument.
There are several questions regarding the validity of many of the proponent’s key arguments. Advocates of the 1990s enforcement campaign that attempted to make buying cigarettes underage much more difficult by cracking down on stores that sold cigarettes to minors in three communities in Massachusetts promised that teen smoking would decrease dramatically as a result. However, according to a two-year study, the effort failed; there was absolutely no difference in rates of teen smoking according to surveys. In fact, teen smoking rates actually increased in comparison to the other communities in the area that were not targeted by this effort.
Rates of teen smoking in California have already seen a dramatic decrease; in fact, between 2000 and 2012, they were cut in half. Many critics of the bill argue that a more effective means of protecting young people from tobacco would be to criminalize smoking while children are present in private homes, cars, and virtually all other environments. Many also believe that raising the taxes on tobacco products would prove to be an effective means of reducing smoking among all age groups.
Despite major opposition by tobacco companies and Republican lawmakers, the bill has already passed the State Assembly and is currently pending approval from Democratic Governor Jerry Brown for it to become state law. If the bill becomes law, time will tell whether or not the effort to raise the smoking age is an effective means of protecting youth from cigarettes and other tobacco products.