Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed a pack of bills that will raise the smoking age in California from 18 to 21, restrict the use of electronic cigarettes in public places and expand no-smoking areas at public schools.
However, Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed counties to seek voter approval of local tobacco taxes to pay for healthcare expenses for those with tobacco-related illnesses.
"Although California has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation, I am reluctant to approve this measure in view of all the taxes being proposed for the 2016 ballot," Brown wrote in his veto message for a bill authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).
Brown did not comment on the other bills that he signed, but state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) said approval of his bill raising the smoking age will save lives.
"The governor's signature on Tobacco 21 is a signal that California presents a united front against Big Tobacco," Hernandez said in a statement. "Together, we stand to disrupt the chain of adolescent addiction."
The package of bills was touted as the "most expansive" effort to control tobacco use in the state in more than a decade. The bills were backed by a coalition of medical groups including the American Heart Assn, American Lung Assn., American Cancer Society and the California Medical Assn.
"It is long past due for California to update our approach to tobacco, and with the governor's signature on these life-saving bills, we have done just that," said Steven Larson, president of the CMA.
The tobacco industry has threatened to seek a referendum vote to overturn the bills increasing the smoking age and restricting e-cigarettes. That threat led lawmakers to employ procedural tricks to make it harder to qualify a referendum.
The governor's action was criticized Wednesday by the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Assn., which represents makers of electronic cigarettes and said it would work with voters to educate them about the industry.
"California took a step backwards today by reclassifying vapor products as tobacco," the group said in a statement. "Stigmatizing vapor products, which contain no tobacco, and treating them the same as combustible tobacco while actively seeking to economically penalize smokers attempting to switch is counterproductive to public health."
Representatives of tobacco giant Altria did not return calls for comment Wednesday. When the smoking age bill was introduced, spokesman David Sutton said the industry preferred that the issue be handled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been studying the matter through the Institute of Medicine.
"We believe states and localities should defer to this regulatory process and give the FDA, the IOM and others the time to review the science and evidence, before enacting different minimum age laws," Sutton said at the time.
The bills were approved during a special session on healthcare and will become effective sooner — June 9 — than other bills, which take effect Jan. 1, 2017.
Supporters of the bills noted that tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., with as many as 34,000 Californians dying each year.
Brown's signature makes California the second state in the nation to raise the tobacco age to 21, following Hawaii. Hernandez authored the bill in an effort to reduce the number of young people who start smoking.
Some 90% of tobacco users start before the age of 21, and about 80% first try tobacco before age 18, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
A 2015 Institute of Medicine study estimated that increasing the tobacco purchase age to 21 will result in 200,000 fewer premature deaths for those born between 2000 and 2019.
After some lawmakers objected that 18-year-olds can join the military but would be banned from smoking, Hernandez changed his bill to exempt people in active military service.
Under other legislation signed by the governor, electronic cigarettes are considered to be tobacco products and cannot be used in restaurants, theaters, bars and other places where smoking has long been banned. They also cannot be marketed to minors.
Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) authored the e-cigarette law, complaining that the so-called "vaping" devices are aggressively marketed to young people with candy flavors such as bubble gum.
Leno cited a study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found the use of e-cigarettes by high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.
"The e-cigarette is nothing more than a new delivery system for toxic and addictive nicotine," Leno said Wednesday. "Ensuring that e-cigarettes fall under California's comprehensive smoke-free laws is critical to protecting public health, especially given the alarming rate at which young people are picking up these devices."
Vaping devices — which heat a liquid often mixed with nicotine and other chemicals to generate an inhalable vapor — have become the most popular delivery system for tobacco products used by high school and middle school students, government researchers said.
Other measures signed by the governor will:
— Close loopholes in the ban on smoking in workplaces to include warehouses, gambling clubs, motel lobbies, covered parking lots and other public areas left out of the existing law.
— Expand the tobacco-free campus law to include more areas of charter schools and public school facilities and offices.
— Raise the licensing fee for tobacco retailers from a one-time $100 charge per location to $265 annually, and boost the annual fee for distributors and wholesalers from $1,000 to $1,200 to better cover the state's enforcement costs.
Follow @mcgreevy99 on Twitter