Sometimes, it's good to be unfriendly. California's hostility toward smoking — it was the first to ban smoking in public indoor spaces, and many municipalities have made it illegal in certain outdoor venues as well — has helped give the state the second-lowest smoking rate in the nation (behind Utah).
The question is how to push that number still lower than the current rate of less than 12% without trampling on the individual's right to make the unwise, unhealthful decision to smoke. Two bills before an Assembly committee on Wednesday share the worthwhile aim of fighting the nicotine habit, but both have flaws.
SB 151 would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. As easy as it is to appreciate the logic behind such a move, this bill takes things too far. It's main purpose isn't to stop smoking among young adults, who make up only a small proportion of new smokers, but to protect teenagers, its proponents say. According to the American Cancer Society, most smokers start by age 18, and these early starters are the most likely to smoke throughout their lives. In California, relatively few minors buy their cigarettes in stores; they are more likely to get them from slightly older friends. SB 151 aims to shut down that supply by denying cigarettes to those friends as well. It's unclear how effective this would be because efforts to raise the smoking age are relatively recent; an Institute of Medicine report estimated that such laws might cut smoking about 12%.
But young people between 18 and 21 are adults. They can vote, serve in the armed forces, marry and sign contracts. To deny them the right to engage in what is still a legal (though potentially lethal) habit on the grounds that some of them might buy cigarettes for minors is an unfair imposition, an abrogation of their right to make choices — badly or well — for themselves. Yes, the drinking age is 21, but that is justified because high rates of drunk driving among younger drivers were putting the lives of innocent people in immediate danger.
A second bill targets the growing use of e-cigarettes — devices that heat a nicotine-laced solution that is inhaled as vapor. In recent years, while teen smoking rates have been dropping, teen vaping rates have skyrocketed. SB 140 would apply anti-tobacco laws to e-cigs as well.
Science has not yet resolved whether vaping is less dangerous than cigarettes. Without the smoke and tar, the chances of lung and other cancers would seem to be significantly reduced. On the other hand, even though some vapers claim that their habit keeps them from smoking cigarettes, studies have been divided on just how true that is. The nicotine in the solution is likely to addict more teenagers, which could make them more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future. There are also concerns about the inhalation of the nicotine and other chemicals in the solution, and the exhaling of secondhand aerosol in enclosed areas.
Obviously, people have a right to vape just as they have a right to smoke. And it would be a mistake to lump the two together forever just because they look similar and everyone remembers how long the tobacco industry hid the dangers of smoking. At the same time, until more information is available, it's better to err on the side of caution when it comes to the possible effects on people who inhale the secondhand aerosol.
SB 140 has it partly right, then, by banning vaping in public indoor settings. But this prohibition should have a time limit of five years or so, to allow for more research to emerge. Science and common sense should guide policy, not unfounded fears.
If both bills pass, it would not only be illegal for people under 21 to buy cigarettes but also for them to buy e-cigarettes. That would be downright silly, prohibiting adults from buying a legal product with no proven significant health risks.
The best anti-smoking legislation this session is still SB 591, which would raise the cigarette tax $2 per pack, generating $1.5 billion a year in the early years to treat smoking-related illnesses in Medi-Cal patients and pay for tobacco-related research and smoking-cessation programs. Most states have higher cigarette taxes, which are a proven method of reducing smoking without taking rights away from adults. The bill is currently stuck in the Senate, but higher tobacco taxes will be discussed in a special legislative session, and we hope this one passes.