California Became the 2nd State to Raise the Legal Smoking Age – Will it Help?

General Health

In March of this year, California lawmakers voted to raise the legal age for buying and smoking cigarettes/tobacco products from 18 to 21, making California the second state, after Hawaii, to make such a move statewide. However, dozens of cities, including New York and San Francisco, have already adopted similar laws of their own.

Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez, who authored the bill, said:

“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.”

The higher age limit won approval, despite fierce opposition from some Republicans and stiff lobbying by the tobacco industry. Republican opponents had argued that the government should stay out of people’s personal health decisions, even if they are harmful. Opponents of the bill said Americans are allowed to make adult decision on their 18th birthday – they can’t drink alcohol, but they can vote, join the military, sign legally binding contracts, and consent to sex. [1]

The measure is part of a larger package of legislation intended to crack down on tobacco. In addition to raising the minimum age, the package regulates e-cigarettes the same as tobacco products, expands smoke-free areas, increases smoking bans, and permits counties to levy higher taxes on cigarettes, which is currently 87 cents. [2]

Advocates of the measure point out that most smokers pick up the nasty habit before the age of 18, according to data from the U.S. surgeon general.

But will it really make a difference?

A study published in Preventative Medicine suggests that raising the minimum age limit on electronic cigarettes might actually increase teen smoking, while noting that vaping is much safer than smoking traditional cigarettes (though not exactly safe).

Lead author Dr. Michael F. Pesko of Cornell University, said:

“We should regulate tobacco products proportionate to their risks, and e-cigarette evidence suggests they’re less risky products. While there’s some risk, it would be a mistake to regulate them the same way we regulate cigarettes.”

Read: 3 Cigarette/Tobacco Facts You May Not Know

A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Health Economics showed that smoking rates among 12- to 17-year-olds actually rose in states that banned e-cigarette sales to minors.

Abigail Friedman of the Yale University School of Public Health, and one of the study’s authors, said:

“Such bans yield a statistically significant 0.9 percentage point increase in recent smoking in this age group, relative to states without such bans.”

Referring to New York City and San Francisco, Pesko said:

“Without commenting on the merits of raising the cigarette minimum purchasing age to 21, results from this study suggest it would have been better from a public health standpoint to increase the purchasing age to 21 only for cigarettes, and not e-cigarettes.”

Pesko said she believes the relationship between raising smoking age and an increase in smoking suggests e-cigarettes may be used as a substitute for conventional tobacco.

Michelle Minton, Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was not surprised by the study results.

“This study provides some evidence for what I and other observers feared about restrictions on electronic cigarettes: when you make them harder to get or more expensive it doesn’t stop kids from smoking, it just pushes them in a different and potentially more harmful direction.

Regardless of intentions, if a policy prompts people to change their choices in a way that causes greater harm to public health, it is irresponsible to not reconsider the wisdom of that policy.” [3]


[1] ABC News

[2] NPR

[3] The Daily Caller