Bills will regulate e-cigarettes, expand smoke-free workplaces, and raise the legal age to buy tobacco to 21
In a special session last week, the California Senate passed a set of tobacco bills, voting to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, expand smoke-free workplaces, empower counties to set higher tobacco taxes, and raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. These bills had stalled in the Assembly last session under “exceptionally aggressive” pressure from the tobacco industry, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into lobbying and threatened to unseat legislators who vote against Big Tobacco.
One bill of particular concern for the tobacco industry raises the smoking age from 18 to 21. Big Tobacco knows that raising the smoking age deters young people from smoking--and they’re worried. Since the tobacco industry keeps killing off its customer base, it needs to continually recruit “replacement smokers” to keep their deadly products profitable, and that means grooming kids for lifelong nicotine addictions (what the industry might dub ‘brand loyalty’). A 1986 internal document from Philip Morris fretted that “raising the smoking age for cigarette purchase[s] to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20).”
The overwhelming majority of adult smokers got hooked on nicotine early, a fact tobacco companies know well. A 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine found that 95% of adult smokers picked up the habit before age 21. Raising the smoking age--especially in the context of other tobacco-control policies like cigarette taxes and bans on smoking in workplaces and public spaces--will prevent many teens and young adults from starting to smoke in the first place. The biggest drops in tobacco use would likely occur among teens ages 15 to 17--kids who can’t legally buy tobacco products in California now but who run in the same social circles as 18-year-olds who may illegally purchase tobacco products for younger friends.
According to the Institute of Medicine, teens and young adults are more susceptible to the effects of nicotine because their brains are still developing, making it more likely they will become addicted to nicotine. And the younger smokers are when they start, the more likely they are to experience negative health outcomes, including lung cancer.
When local health advocates stood up for cigarette taxes, smoke-free policies, and airline smoking bans, Big Tobacco fought back hard because the industry knew these measures would hurt their business model. And they were right. Since the US Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking and health, the bold efforts of public health advocates have reshaped local, state and federal policies to protect the public from this killer industry. And these efforts are paying off, as smoking rates--and smoking-related illnesses and deaths--have plummeted. A 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association article estimated that tobacco-control efforts since 1964 have prevented eight million people from dying prematurely. Each of these eight million people lived, on average, an extra 20 years because they quit smoking early or never started smoking in the first place.
To be sure, there’s still much work to be done to protect people from the dangers of secondhand smoke, extend federal tobacco regulations to cover e-cigarettes and emerging tobacco products, shield kids from tobacco marketing, ban menthol products that target communities of color, and raise the tobacco tax at the state level. California has taken an important step in passing these bills, and we hope other states will follow suit quickly. We applaud those legislators who found the courage to vote ‘yes’: ‘Yes’ to a healthier California, and ‘yes’ to the hope of a smoke-free generation.