21 to smoke? California Assembly approves raising smoking age

Breaking a political logjam, the state Assembly on Thursday approved a package of anti-tobacco bills, including measures that would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 in California and ban the use of electronic cigarettes in restaurants, theaters and other public places where traditional smoking is prohibited.

Lawmakers cited the health risks of tobacco in approving six bills and sending them to the state Senate, which had previously acted on the smoking-age and vaping bills but must now vote on minor amendments.

Republicans said it was unfair to take away the decision on whether to smoke from young people who are old enough to marry, vote, sign contracts and join the military.

"You can give your life but you can't buy a pack of cigarettes," said Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, who opposed the bill.

Some veterans groups also objected, leading Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) to amend the bill to exempt those under 21 who are in active military service.

Even so, others saw the measure by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) as taking away rights to engage in a legal activity, even if it may harm the consumer.

“Eighteen-year-old adults who can enlist in the military and serve and have all the other privileges of adults can decide for themselves,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who chaired the committee that blocked a similar bill. He was one of four Democrats who voted against the bill. 

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said supporters overcame “significant” lobbying by the tobacco industry to approve what she called “the most far-reaching package of legislation related to tobacco in more than 50 years.”

The bills were pushed by a coalition called Save Lives California that included the California Medical Assn., the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Assn., and noted 95% of adult smokers start before the age of 21.

"We know what a killer tobacco products are," Wood said during a lengthy floor debate. "Let's do something to stem the tide and save millions of lives in the future." 

In an Assembly flush with Democrats who are typically seen as unfriendly to tobacco, securing a simple majority to pass the tobacco bills proved to be surprisingly difficult.

The bills were originally slated to be voted on at the close of session last year, but a substantial number within the Democratic caucus -- exhausted by contentious legislative fights on climate change and internal leadership battles -- objected to bringing the measures up for consideration.

Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU California, said she thought legislators balked for several reasons.

"I had a number of converstions with folks who had legitimate concerns ... about the policy,” said Butler, whose labor union lobbied for the measures. "There were a number of them who had been taking campaign contributions from Big Tobacco for a long time, so there was some degree of loyalty. And then I think there were people who were just scared that Big Tobacco would come after them in their races."

But the bills remained on hold in the special legislative session, which was convened to address healthcare financing. When legislators approved a tax on healthcare plans earlier in the week, proponents of the tobacco legislation saw a window of opportunity to push those bills through before the special session closed.

That launched a furious 48-hour stretch of cajoling and arm-twisting to secure enough votes. The meetings involving multiple members stretched late into Wednesday night.

Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), one of the speaker’s “whips” whose job is to keep track of the vote count, said he personally lobbied more than 10 Democrats and at least three Republicans. He said the vote accumulation effort was the hardest he’s had since he arrived in the Assembly in 2014, in part because he was trying to secure "ayes" for all six bills in the package.

In the end, there were plenty of votes: The measure was approved by a 46-26 vote after Republicans tried to block action on the grounds that tobacco bills were not appropriate for a special session called on healthcare financing.

However, the smoking age and e-cigarette bills had been shelved in July because of opposition in the Assembly Health Committee for the regular session. By reintroducing the bills in a special session, Democratic leaders were able to steer the measures to new committees that lacked opponents.

Republican Assemblyman Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita called the maneuver the “hijacking of the democratic process.”

But Democratic leaders said the bills were appropriate to take up in the special session because smoking negatively impacts health.

The Assembly also divided mostly along party lines over a bill that would define electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, subjecting them to the same public-use restrictions and sales and marketing laws that cover traditional cigarettes.

The measure by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) limits the use of electronic cigarettes, which deliver chemicals by vapor rather than smoke, in public places, and prohibits marketing them and selling them to minors. Leno said e-cigarettes have been marketed to minors with flavors such as cotton candy, bubble gum and chocolate.

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The use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"E-cigarettes threaten our health," Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) said in a floor speech. "We cannot allow our next generations to become addicted to this new tobacco product."

Republican Assemblyman Matthew Harper of Huntington Beach was among the opponents.

"This bill is an absolute outrage," Harper said. "It's trying to define non-tobacco products as tobacco."

The Smoke-Free Alternative Trade Assn. last year sent dozens of people to testify against the bill at hearings, arguing that vapor devices are safer than combustion smoking and have helped many smokers kick their cigarette habit. Leno argued e-cigarette vapor usually contains nicotine and other dangerous chemicals.

The lobbying by traditional tobacco reportedly involved threats against election efforts, according to incoming Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount). “It's exceptionally aggressive,” he said.

A measure to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack was not acted on because it did not have the needed two-thirds vote to pass, but supporters are proposing an initiative for the November ballot. The Assembly did pass a measure allowing counties to seek voter approval of tobacco taxes to pay for costs such as providing healthcare for those with tobacco-related illnesses.

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Other bills approved Thursday by the Assembly would:

-- Expand the ban on workplace smoking to include warehouses, gambling clubs, motel lobbies, covered parking lots and other public areas left out of a previous law.

-- Increase the tobacco-free campus law to include all 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 costs of enforcement.

Action by the Senate and governor are required before any of the proposals can become law.

 

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:15 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details and context.

This story was originally published at 2:32 p.m.

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