PolitiCal

California lawmakers act to raise smoking age to 21, restrict e-cigarettes

The state Senate on Thursday approved six anti-tobacco bills, including measures that would raise the smoking age in California from 18 to 21 and bar electronic cigarettes from restaurants, movie theaters and other public places where smoking is banned.

Meeting in a special session on healthcare, the Senate also sent the Assembly bills that would allow counties to impose tobacco taxes, outlaw tobacco use at all schools, plug loopholes in a smoking ban in workplaces, and boost the licensing fee for tobacco retailers. All of the bills next go to the Assembly for consideration.

The new restrictions on e-cigarettes were proposed by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) partly in response to a federal study that found their use by teenagers has tripled in the last few years.

“This is important because the fastest growing segment of the e-cigarette market is middle and high school students," Leno told his colleagues, noting that 11 other states, including Colorado and Minnesota, have similar laws.

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The tobacco industry has fought the legislation, saying that e-cigarettes use vapor, not combustible tobacco, are safer and are often used by smokers to transition away from the smoking habit.

Most Republicans opposed the measure, but Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) voted for the bill, telling his colleagues that family members and friends have died from smoking related illnesses.

"We need to get ahead of this public health nightmare," Stone said during the debate.

The measure to increase the smoking age from 18 to 21 was pushed by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina). 

“We cannot continue to sit by while these tobacco companies continue to poison generation after generation with their addictive products," Hernandez said Friday.

However, others argued that if Californians can join the military and fight in wars at 18 they ought to be able to decide whether to smoke.

“These people are adults who are willing to put their life on the line for their country and they ought to be able to go buy a pack of cigarettes if they want to,” said Pete Conaty, a lobbyist for the American Legion.

It is the second time in three months that the Senate has approved bills raising the smoking age and restricting e-cigarettes. Bills approved in June as part of the regular session stalled in the Assembly, but new versions were approved Thursday as part of a special session on health care.

The special session has allowed the bills to bypass the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee where the earlier measures were held up in July.

Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) opposed the piecemeal restrictions on tobacco, including the measure allowing counties to raise taxes.

"If we want to ban cigarettes, lets just ban them," Anderson said in criticizing the new anti tobacco measures.

A new bill approved by the Senate on Thursday would allow the state Board of Equalization to charge a $265 licensing fee to tobacco retailers every year rather than a one-time fee of $100, and increase the existing $1,000 annual licensing fee assessed on tobacco distributors to $1,200.

According to estimates, the change would raise an extra $11.1 million per year to help the state enforce laws on the industry.

The package of six bills, and a separate measure to boost the tobacco tax by $2 per pack, are supported by a coalition called Save Lives California that includes the California Medical Assn., the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union.

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