Why California's tobacco bill proved surprisingly difficult

The California State Assembly became the next in a line of government bodies to ban smoking under age 21 after contending with the argument that 18 represents adulthood for most other legal decisions.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, celebrates after a bill raising the the smoking age from 18 to 21, was approved by the Assembly, Thursday. The bill now goes to the Senate but is being mirrored in cities and states around the country with similar arguments for and against.

Californians can vote, grow marijuana, and die for their country starting from age 18, but if a bill passed Thursday by the California State Assembly becomes law, they cannot smoke cigarettes.

"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 California Assemblyman Adam Gray, one of four Democrats who blocked the bill, according to the Los Angeles Times.

This argument made passage of a tobacco bill banning smoking for those under 21 surprisingly difficult for the state that pioneered public smoking bans. Nonetheless, it is losing ground in various cities and a few states around the country, Patrick McGreevy and Melanie Mason reported for The Los Angeles Times.

Boston, New York City, and around 100 other cities have already raised the age to 21, as has the state of Hawaii. Other states, such as Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah have raised the minimum age to 19. Public opinion increasingly supports these limits to keep tobacco away from teenagers and prevent smokers from starting, according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which found in 2014 that almost 70 percent of current smokers – and even higher rates of former or non-smokers – support raising the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21.

The bill passed the California State Assembly the same week the city of San Francisco passed a law preventing anyone under age 21 from buying tobacco products inside city limits, CBS SF Bay Area reported. Similar laws had already passed in Healdsburg and Santa Clara County. In San Francisco, Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, suggested the city wait for a rule from the state, saying the law treated 18-year-olds as adults in voting, military service, and agreeing to legal contracts. 

This argument relies on the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution, which moved the voting age to 18 years. Proponents of the change said at the time that a person who was old enough to fight and die in military service to the country should have the chance to vote for those who order the military operation. This tobacco argument comes in reverse.

"You can give your life but you can't buy a pack of cigarettes," California Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R) said in opposing the California bill, according to the LA Times.

Lawmakers in Hawaii raised the same issues when that state became the first to prohibit tobacco sales to those under 21 in June. 

"I can't stand cigarette smoking. It's disgusting," Hawaii Rep. Angus McKelvey (D) told The Associated Press. "But to tell somebody you can go and fight for your country and get killed but you can't have a cigarette, that's the thing."

The concern finally forced a compromise on California's bill. Assemblyman Jim Wood (D) provided an exemption to military service members under age 21, although he continued to press the effort on public health grounds.

"We know what a killer tobacco products are," Mr. Wood said in debate, according to the LA Times. "Let's do something to stem the tide and save millions of lives in the future."

Assemblyman Evan Low, said this was the toughest bill he has lobbied for since joining the legislative body in 2014. The California Senate will vote on the bill's amendments next.

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