Home – Lawmakers Mull Raising Legal Smoking Age

Lawmakers Mull Raising Legal Smoking Age

 Sometime in the next week – maybe by the time you are reading this – California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will weigh in on legislation to raise his state’s legal smoking age from 18 to 21. If he signs it, the Golden State would become only the second to adopt such a standard. But with similar bills pending now in several statehouses, it might not be the last.


Although over 100 cities and other municipalities across the country have raised their smoking age to 21, no such statewide standard existed until Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) signed SB 1030 into law last June. The law, which also applies to electronic tobacco vaping products, went into effect on January 1. Days later, New Jersey lawmakers followed suit with their own measure (AB 3254/SB 602). But Gov. Chris Christie (R) pocket vetoed the bill without comment, leaving Hawaii as the only one with a statewide age-21 standard.


But that is likely to soon change. In addition to California, similar proposals are currently under consideration in several states, including New Jersey, where Sen. Richard Codey (D) has reintroduced the proposal vetoed by Gov. Christie last year. (See Bird’s eye view.)


But will raising the smoking age actually prevent more teens from taking up tobacco?


Supporters point to studies like one released in 2015 from the Institute of Medicine that show 90 percent of smokers take up the habit before age 19. Dave Dobbins, COO of the Truth Initiative, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit working to eradicate tobacco use, says that often occurs when a younger teen gets cigarettes or other tobacco products from an older teen who obtained them legally. In theory that happens because it is not overly unusual for a 17-year-old to run in the same social circles as an 18-year-old. Raising the legal purchasing age, the studies say, can go a long way toward preventing that. 


“From a policy point of view, if you increase the smoking age to 21, the young underage smokers won’t have relationships with the older up-to-21 age,” University of California San Francisco tobacco policy researcher Rachel Barry told California Healthline last month.


Dobbins says nobody thinks the age restriction alone will stop such things from happening, but he says it is a necessary component of a wide reaching plan to keep kids away from tobacco.


“We know that no age restriction will stop a kid who really wants something from getting it,” he says. “But we think stopping that first try of a kid getting it from a friend who got it legally could reduce youth tobacco uptake by as much as 20 percent.”


That’s more optimistic than the Institute of Medicine report, which estimated only a 12 percent decline in teen smoking rates if the legal age is raised to 21. Even so, the anti-smoking advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says such a decline would result in a 10 percent decrease in tobacco-related deaths - approximately 223,000 people – each year.


James Ross, a longtime LexisNexis employee who has smoked since his freshman year in college, isn’t so sure about all this. He got his first cigarette from an older colleague where he worked at the time, starting a habit that has lasted for decades. Like many of us, he remembers how easy it was as a young person to get alcohol or other illicit things regardless of the laws of the day. And while he supports efforts to prevent young people from starting, he wonders if this particular tack could do more harm than good.


“It could turn into a case of the forbidden fruit,” he says. “The more you try to keep something from someone the more they want it. Maybe it actually convinces someone to try it, just to see what it’s about.”


Critics also point to the record-low levels of teens smoking, begging the question of whether more anti-tobacco legislation is necessary, particularly as many states are already struggling with a significant loss of annual tax revenue resulting from decreased tobacco sales.


Loss of tax revenue is at the heart of opposition to a bill in Massachusetts (SB 2234) that would not only raise the smoking age to 21, but also bar the sale of tobacco and nicotine products in health-related outlets like retail pharmacies and stores with optical departments. The measure would also prohibit e-cigarettes in places where smoking is already barred, such as schools and workplaces. In a statement, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts said the measure will only drive smokers to purchase tobacco products in other states or online, thus “depriving the Commonwealth of tobacco excise tax revenue used to address problems associated with smoking which will endure.


Taxes were also the key element of debate in the Washington legislature. A measure there that would have barred both standards and electronic tobacco products for those under 21 (HB 2313) stalled in the House Committee on Appropriations in February. It was reintroduced in special session in March, but several lawmakers remained opposed, particularly after the state Office of Financial Management issued a report saying that raising the smoking age to 21 would cost the Evergreen State more than $10 million a year in lost tax revenue. That resistance sparked a strong response from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D), who told the Columbian on March 22, “If you raise the smoking age, fewer teenagers will be buying cigarettes, [which is a] good thing. Is the Legislature really balancing their budget on the backs of teenage smokers? Look, the candid answer is yes.” Even so, not action was taken during the special session, which ended on March 29.


But that hasn’t discouraged advocates for raising the age, who contend that the rate of decrease in teen smoking has flattened out in recent years, due in part to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, or “vaping.” Those products have proven to be particularly popular among young people, which is why age-hike advocates have pushed so hard to ensure they are included in the restriction bills under consideration.


Gubernatorial support for current measures has also bounced all over the map. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said last week he supports the idea of raising the smoking age, but will need to see what the final legislation looks like before knowing if he’ll sign it. That chance could come soon as the Senate approved SB 2234 last Thursday, sending it to the House. Meanwhile, Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin (D) has indicated he doesn’t support HB 93, which would raise both the legal smoking age and the per-pack tax on cigarettes by 13 cents a year through 2019.


Other measures Brown must act on in California include expanding the places where e-cigarettes are banned, broadening workplace smoking prohibitions and raising the licensing fee for tobacco retailers. Another measure that would ban smoking and the use of tobacco and vaping products on all of the California State University and community college campuses (AB 1594) cleared the Assembly last week and is expected to meet similar approval in the Senate. The governor has stuck to his general policy of not commenting on bills before he acts on them. But in a statehouse dominated by Democrats who are normally lined up to oppose Big Tobacco, getting the six-bill package passed was surprisingly difficult. Originally passed in March, lawmakers held back from sending them to Brown after the tobacco lobby threatened to undertake a referendum campaign to harm other ballot measures Democrats favor: one that would impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax and another to extend higher taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. Neither has yet qualified for the November ballot.


Whatever the results, Truth Initiative’s Dobbins vowed that organizations like his will continue to push a wide suite of both state and Congressional efforts to curb teen smoking.


“Raising the age limit is just one of many tools to stop kids before they start,” he says.