xLOS ANGELES – A lawmaker planned to unveil a bill Monday that would raise California’s smoking age from 18 to 21, making it the highest in the nation.
The bill would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to purchase tobacco products, including cigarettes, in the state. All 50 states set a minimum age of at least 18 following a 1992 directive from Congress. In three states — Alabama, Alaska and Utah — the legal age is 19.
State Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, said the goal is to cut smoking rates among kids in their teens, the age when most smokers pick up the habit.
More than 400,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributable to tobacco-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The American Lung Association estimates about 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking before the age of 21.
“Our highest calling is to do things that save lives and the best way to prevent smoking deaths is to prevent people from becoming addicted to tobacco in the first place. My bill is the best way to do that,” Koretz said.
The move follows a February vote by the California Medical Association to push for the change in state law.
Dr. Leonard Klay, a Santa Rosa obstetrician and gynecologist who introduced the measure at the association’s annual meeting, said a higher smoking age, along with peer pressure and the taxes that make cigarettes unaffordable for many teens, should cut smoking rates.
“If you’re smoking by age 21, it’s very difficult to quit,” said Klay, 64, who smoked for more than dozen years after beginning at age 19.
The American Lung Association initially was cool to the medical group’s proposal, saying it preferred to concentrate on enforcing current tobacco-related laws.
On Friday, however, Paul Knepprath, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association of California, said the group would support the proposed legislation, despite what he called a lack of evidence that a hike in the minimum age would reduce youth smoking.
Anti-smoking activists fear the bill could derail other tobacco-related legislative efforts, including continued pushes to boost taxes on cigarettes.
Gov. Gray Davis has proposed tacking 50 cents on each pack of cigarettes to help close an expected $23.6 billion budget shortfall. The Lung Association and others are pushing to add an additional 15 cents on top of that to go to anti-smoking efforts.
Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company, said the company believes a better approach to curbing youth smoking is enforcement of existing laws, but that it would remain neutral on the bill.
“We will be guided by whatever society says the minimum age should be for tobacco products,” McCormick said.
University of Southern California student Rob Mariano, 21, said he didn’t think tighter access would prevent young people from smoking.
“They can try all they want, but kids are going to find ways to get cigarettes,” said Mariano, who began smoking at 14. Mariano said he bought cigarettes from stores that didn’t ask for identification or had older friends buy them.
Because the deadline for introducing new bills has passed, Koretz planned to amend an existing tobacco-related bill to seek the change in state law.
That bill, AB 1453, would also ban ashtrays where it is illegal to smoke, require them in designated smoking areas and restrict the distribution of free tobacco samples. It has been stalled in the state Senate for the past year.