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Young Californians' cigarette privileges: Up in smoke

From Pacific to Atlantic, states are looking to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed legislation that will raise the legal age to buy tobacco products  to 21, from 18, beginning on June 9. In Massachusetts, a similar bill has been routed to the House Committee on Health Care Financing after passing the state Senate. In January, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pocket-vetoed a bill raising the legal smoking age in his state, while at the same time Hawaii’s tobacco 21 bill became the law of the islands.

Critics, though, say the efforts are largely smoke and mirrors that will inevitably backfire.

Supporters of laws that boost the legal smoking age, which are in effect in at least 145 cities and counties nationwide point to conclusions in a 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine. The report predicts that the numbers of youths who smoke will drop by 12 percent in jurisdictions where the smoking age is increased to 21.

But even supporters concede that the evidence for such numbers is not overwhelming.

“Because it’s a new policy attempt, there has not been a ton of evidence on how many lives might be saved,” John Schachter, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told AMI Newswire.

Critics make the argument that if 18-year-olds can vote for president and enlist in the military, they should be able to make the personal decision of whether to use tobacco products. Schachter, however, said that age requirements vary on an array of activities, from drinking alcohol to renting a car.

“The costs of smoking are incredibly high, and the benefits are nonexistent,” he said, adding that 95 percent of adult smokers took up the habit before they turned 21.

Moreover, the idea that young people are making informed decisions about tobacco use amid a $9.5-billion-a-year advertising and marketing blitz by tobacco companies is simply not true, Schachter said.

He also counter-attacked the argument about 18-year-olds in the military, noting that in Hawaii, all branches of the military have pledged to abide by that state’s new smoking age law. Schachter said the military has recognized that tobacco use is not productive for military readiness and that all branches have been emphasizing cessation efforts among their members.

In California, however, some say that the new law is largely symbolic and will have a drag on the state’s economy.

“We believe it’s bad public policy,” Bill Dombrowski, president and chief executive officer of the California Retailers Association, told AMI Newswire. “It drives sales to the black market.”

Dombrowski said the wording of the California law is also causing confusion among retailers because it is silent about the legal age of clerks in convenience stores where tobacco products are sold. “How old do they have to be?” he asked.

He also expressed doubt that such a new law would have any effect on the number of teens taking up the habit.  “It’s all bogus. The thing that reduces smoking is education and, like everything else in life, you have to do the hard work.”

Although the movement to increase the smoking age seems to be starting to catch fire nationwide – bills have been introduced in Congress – Dombrowski is among those who have not felt the burn. “The only states that would do it would be liberal states,” he said. “By no means is it going to become a nationwide standard.”

He contends that, once the law takes effect in California, state sales tax revenue will drop as a result.

California’s law was eventually amended to exempt the members of the military – and for good reason, he said. “I was doing a television interview in the park across the street on this same subject. The cameraman says, ‘This is crazy. I can go to Afghanistan, but I can’t buy a damn pack of cigarettes?’ This is just stupid public policy. It’s just public policy at its worst.”

Dombrowski said he had not heard of any organization gearing up for an initiative drive to overturn the law in November. A media spokesman at California’s Secretary of State’s Office also said Tuesday that he had seen no paperwork filed for an initiative to repeal the law.

Although polling has shown wide public support for raising the legal smoking age, some researchers doubt that the California law will yield any health benefits. Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, wrote in a recent article that when Congress mandated a legal smoking age in 1992, previous declines in teen smoking flat-lined for six years. Similar disappointing results have occurred as a result of raising the drinking age, Males argues.