Why California veterans oppose raising the smoking age

On Thursday, California's smoking age goes up to 21, prompting a debate about personal freedoms and the influence of Big Tobacco.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, (D) of San Diego, celebrates after a bill raising the the smoking age from 18 to 21 was approved by the California State Assembly in March. The bill took effect on Thursday over the objection of veterans' groups, who had argued that people who can serve in the military should be able to smoke.

On Thursday, California is raising its smoking age to 21, joining Hawaii and 100 other municipalities in a law that makes giving or selling tobacco to people under 21 a misdemeanor.

It’s an effort that seems like an easy fix given the health risks, according to many anti-smoking groups and doctors, who note that 95 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they were 21.

But for veterans groups and some state lawmakers, the change raises a key question: should the state bar young people who can vote or serve in the military from being able to smoke if they choose?

Eighteen-year-old adults who can enlist in the military and serve and have all the other privileges of adults can decide for themselves,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D) of Merced, as lawmakers debated a set of tobacco control bills in March. He was one of four Democrats who voted against the bill, which passed 46 to 26, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But Andrew Rodriguez, who was 15 when he had his first cigarette, noted the addictive nature of smoking. "I think it's better," Mr. Rodriguez, a 21-year-old chef-in-training from Los Angeles, told the Associated Press this week. "I just hope they don't raise the drinking age."

Veterans groups have played a key role in the debate, which included legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that treats e-cigarettes and vaporizers as tobacco products. E-cigarettes are also banned in public places, including many workplaces, restaurants and movie theaters, the AP reports. 

In 2011, 24 percent of active-duty military personnel said they currently smoked, compared to 19 percent of civilians, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC has aimed a slew of anti-smoking campaigns at service members and veterans, who are also more likely to smoke than non-veterans.

But while veterans’ groups and opponents have framed the issue as one of personal choice, many groups are also prodded by the tobacco industry, which has intensively lobbied veterans groups and VA hospitals since the 1980s, according to a 2013 study.

“The US military, composed primarily of working-class young people, has long been an important source of new smokers for the tobacco industry,” wrote researchers Naphtali Offen, Elizabeth A. Smith, and Ruth E. Malone in the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

One brochure from 1990, for example, announces "The Designated Smoking Area is the Parking Lot," showing an elderly veteran in a wheelchair sitting alone in a parking lot. The ad was created by the Veterans for Smokers Rights Coalition, which further argued that forcing veterans to smoke outside in bad weather could lead to health problems.

The coalition appeared to be a grassroots group opposed to Congressional efforts to stop cigarette sales at VA hospital canteens and to ban smoking indoors. But it was instead created by a West Virginia public relations firm backed by the tobacco industry’s largest lobbying group, according to the study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco’s School of Nursing.

"[T]he tobacco industry cynically exploited veterans' other concerns to advance its aims, even claiming the mantle of health protector," the authors write in the American Journal of Public Health study.

An amendment to California's new law allows active-duty military members to buy cigarettes at age 18 if they have a military ID, meant to allay veterans' concerns. 

The negotiations to raise the smoking age were contentious, stalled for several months amid objections. Lobbying groups for the vapor cigarette industry, for example, argued their products are safer than traditional tobacco.

Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU California, whose union lobbied for the measure, told the L.A. Times there were a variety of reasons lawmakers objected, including legitimate concerns about the policy.

But "there was some degree of loyalty [to the tobacco industry]” she told the paper. “And then I think there were people who were just scared that Big Tobacco would come after them in their races.”

On Wednesday, the coalition of health advocates that pushed for the measures hailed the effort. “I think tomorrow is a proud example of California taking the lead to protect our kids and stand up to big tobacco,” Mike Roth, spokesperson for Save Lives California, told USA Today.

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