California, Washington Aim to Raise Smoking Age to 21

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California legislators are currently mulling legislation that would change the minimum smoking age in the state from 18 to 21. The bill was filed this week in the California Senate, and in addition to raising the minimum age, it would allow the State Department of Public Health to conduct random inspections of cigarette retailers.

This bill was filed by Democratic State Senator Ed Hernandez, who represents a part of Los Angeles County. His bill is supported by many prominent health advocacy organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Cancer Action Network, and the American Lung Association.

Although the bill would legalize alcohol and cigarettes at the same age for young people–21–the motivations seem to be different. While alcohol-restriction laws are mostly based on developmental health and public safety, the attempt to restrict cigarettes to only those over 21 seems to be more focused on preventing teens from smoking young and getting addicted. President of the California Medical Association Luther Cobb explained “that increasing the age at which people can purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 will help reduce tobacco use in young people, hence reducing the number of preventable diseases.”

Although this would be a great step toward reducing the prevalence of teenagers beginning smoking habits at younger ages, Hernandez realizes that his bill means standing up to the powerful tobacco companies–and their lobbying forces. Hernandez said in a statement:

Tobacco companies know that people are more likely to become addicted to smoking if they start at a young age. We can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines while Big Tobacco markets to our kids and gets another generation of young people hooked on a product that will ultimately kill them.

California isn’t the only state to move toward changing the rules when it comes to smoking. Earlier this month, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson proposed legislation that would raise the minimum smoking age to 21 in that state as well. Ferguson cited the fact that 90 percent of those who are smokers began the practice in their teens as his reasoning for pushing this bill. In addition to preventing teenagers from smoking, Ferguson pointed out that it would save Washington money in healthcare costs. Two Washington state legislators, Republican Senator Mark Miloscia and Democratic Representative Tina Orwall, stood with Ferguson in a bipartisan effort, although like in California, it’s expected that getting such legislation passed will require a fight against tobacco companies and the politicians they fund.

While Washington and California are certainly getting in on this movement earlier, they aren’t alone. Most states require that residents be 18 to smoke, though some have set the age at 19. Utah, New Jersey, Alabama, and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia, all have minimum smoking ages of 19.

There are also cities and counties that have made the move. For example, Hawaii County, also known as the “Big Island” of Hawaii, has raised its smoking age to 21, as well as select counties in other states such as Massachusetts. Even more notably, New York City raised its legal smoking age to 21 at the beginning of 2014.

While it will certainly be an uphill battle given the money in Big Tobacco’s coffers, the moves to up the smoking age in California and Washington are encourging. While the percentage of young smokers has fallen dramatically in the last 50-odd years, hopefully bills like these will continue to drop that number even further.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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