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Several states aim to raise legal age for tobacco to 21; they say it will keep teens from smoking (updated)

Cigarette butts Matthias Weinberger/Flickr (Creative Commons licensed)

Efforts to raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 are bubbling in state houses across the nation, including in Sacramento where a bill cleared the Senate on Tuesday.

In the west, legislatures in Oregon and Washington are considering similar bills and lawmakers in Hawaii have passed a bill and sent it to the governor. Local governments, including New York City and Hawaii County, have already upped the minimum legal buying age to 21.

The national trend has been bolstered by a recent Institute of Medicine study of the potential outcomes of raising the legal age for tobacco products. It concludes that the number of teens who smoke would drop by 12 percent if the age is raised to 21. This is because it would be harder for younger teens to find someone of legal age to buy them cigarettes than it is now.

The Institute of Medicine study says nine out of ten smokers started before they were 19. There are more than 40 million smokers in the U.S.

Four other states – Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - have raised the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 19.  Texas is considering a bill to raise the age there to 19. And New Jersey lawmakers are reviewing a bill to raise the age to 21.

California Senator Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, authored the bill, SB 151, that will now go before the Assembly. It passed in the Senate 26 – 8.

 “We will not 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,” said Hernandez in a statement after the vote. “Tobacco companies know that people are more likely to become addicted to smoking if they start at a young age.” 

Proponents of the bill point to high health costs for the state related to tobacco use. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has estimated $13.5 billion is spent annually on health care related to smoking. 

Supporters of the bill include the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Cancer Society. Opponents include the Cigar Association of America and the California Retailers Association.

Critics of the bill say that because 18-year-olds are able to vote and join the military they should get make their own decisions about tobacco.

This isn’t the only proposal to regulate tobacco and tobacco-like products making its way through the legislature.

Another bill, SB 140 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that cleared the senate this week 24 - 12 would change the laws to treat electronic cigarettes more like tobacco products.

Which means if Leno's bill becomes law vaping would be banned in public places such as restaurants and if Hernandez's tobacco legal age bill also passes, consumers would have to be 21 to buy electronic cigarettes.