California Poised to Become Second State to Raise Tobacco Age to 21

SACRAMENTO — With the stroke of a pen, California would become the second state to raise the legal buying age for tobacco to 21. It would also become the most populous.

On Thursday, state legislators voted to increase the legal age to buy and use all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21 statewide. A similar measure went into effect in Hawaii on Jan. 1.

The bill allows members of the military to continue buying cigarettes at 18.

Before it can become law, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown must sign the legislation, which has already passed the state Assembly. His spokesman said the governor generally does not comment on pending legislation, according to The Associated Press.

"We can prevent countless California youth from becoming addicted to this deadly drug, save billions of dollars in direct health care costs and, most importantly, save lives," said Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez, who wrote the bill.

According to Vivien Azer, director and senior research analyst at Cowen and Co., California may be the most populous state but it is "the second largest in terms of cigarette volume as the state's smoking incidence trails well below the national average."

As a result, if the legislation does become law, it may not have much of an effect on cigarette volumes.

"Given California represents approximately 7 percent of volumes, this implies an immaterial 4 basis points hit to U.S. cigarette volumes," Azer said.

She added several other states, totaling 24 percent of U.S. cigarette volumes, are considering similar measures to increase the legal buying age. Those states include Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. 

New York City became the first large city to make the move from 18 to 21 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in late 2013.

"If the bill is signed and enacted by Gov. Brown, we believe other states will follow suit, as New York City and California have historically been thought leaders in tobacco regulation," Azer said. "However, we still believe a nationwide minimum-age increase would take time, have only a modest impact on volumes and pricing would serve as an offset."

The move to increase the age limit is part of a package of what some are calling anti-tobacco bills.

Another bill would classify e-cigarettes, or "vaping" devices, as tobacco products subject to the same restrictions on who can purchase them and where they can be used.

The bills would also expand smoke-free areas to include bars, workplace breakrooms, small businesses, warehouses and hotel lobbies and meeting rooms. Smoking bans would apply at more schools, including charter schools, and counties would be able to raise their own cigarette taxes beyond the state's levy of 87 cents per pack, according to the news report.

The legislation would take effect 90 days after the governor signs it.

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