California May Raise Smoking Age to 21

by | August 28, 2015

By James Nash

California is looking to restore its reputation for agenda-setting tobacco regulation with measures to raise the smoking age to 21, triple per-pack taxes and regulate e-cigarettes the same as conventional products.

The American Cancer Society and other supporters contend California, which passed the first smoke-free workplace law in 1994, has slipped behind other states in regulating and taxing tobacco use.

Hawaii this year became the first to raise the minimum age to 21, while scores of others have raised taxes and banished smoking from workplaces. California has the second-lowest percentage of smokers in the nation, though it ranks 35th in terms of per-pack taxes on cigarettes.

"California used to lead the nation in tobacco control," Jim Knox, the American Cancer Society's vice president of government relations in the state, said by telephone. "We've fallen to the back of the pack now. There's no question that these bills collectively will put California into the leading position in tobacco control."

E-cigarette companies are fighting attempts to treat their products the same as cigarettes, while tobacco producers are pushing back on state-level age restrictions.

In June, as Reynolds American Inc. completed an acquisition of Lorillard Inc. for more than $25 billion to solidify its position as the No. 2 cigarette manufacturer, Chief Executive Officer Susan Cameron hailed a return to the "old days" of rising profits and fewer lawsuits.

Reynolds spokesman Bryan Hatchell didn't return telephone calls seeking comment on California's proposed regulations.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., the No. 1 cigarette manufacturer, said states should wait for the federal government to act. The Institute of Medicine this year produced a report for the Food and Drug Administration that concluded that higher minimum ages would "likely prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults."

"This is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it," Phelps said in an e-mail. "We believe states and localities should defer to this process and allow the FDA and Congress the opportunity to think through this issue further before enacting different minimum age laws."

A bill introduced by state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who is a pediatrician, would add $2 per pack of 20 cigarettes to California's 87 cent tax. Most proceeds from the tax, estimated at $1.3 billion a year at current smoking rates, would go toward the costs of treating tobacco-related diseases.

If the legislation is approved and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California would have the ninth highest tobacco tax in the nation. New York is first with $4.35 a pack. The federal government levies a tax of $1.01 per pack. Pan said California's public health-care system incurs costs of $18.1 billion a year for treating smoking-related illnesses.

"The taxpayers of California should be able to recoup at least a little more of the costs incurred by tobacco use," Pan said in a telephone interview. "We lag every state that surrounds us."

The state Senate on Thursday passed a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, to regulate e-cigarettes under California's smoke-free laws. In a statement, Leno said e-cigarettes are hooking a new generation of users drawn to flavors like bubble gum and gummy bears.

His bill would ban the electronic alternatives at restaurants, bars, hospitals, workplaces and other locations where conventional cigarettes are prohibited.

The e-cigarette industry is valued at $3.5 billion with triple the growth of tobacco, and those numbers largely exclude "vaping," the practice of inhaling nicotine-infused vapor from devices, said George Medici, a spokesman for the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association.

Restrictions and taxes in California and elsewhere could chill the growth of that segment and drive people back to conventional cigarettes, which are more harmful, said Glenn Kassel, a board member for the association who founded Freedom Smokeless, which makes components of smokeless products.

"We believe that vapor products are not tobacco products," Kassel, who is based in San Clemente, Calif., said by telephone. "They're technology products and should be regulated as such."

All the bills have passed in the Senate and await votes in the Assembly.

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