California advances bills to raise smoking age, regulate vaping

A store manager lights a Marlboro cigarette while posing for photos at a Smoker Friendly shop in Pittsburgh.
A store manager lights a Marlboro cigarette while posing for photos at a Smoker Friendly shop in Pittsburgh. AP

Sweeping tobacco control bills raising California’s smoking age to 21 and treating electronic cigarettes as tobacco products passed the California Assembly on Thursday and should soon go before Gov. Jerry Brown.

Both bills now return to the Senate, where they are expected to pass, for a final vote before going before landing on Brown’s desk. Senate Bill 7, which raises the smoking age, passed 46-26 with five Democrats voting no and two Republicans – both facing tough re-election bids – in support. Senate Bill 5, which regulates e-cigarettes as tobacco products, passed 50-20 with three Democrats not voting.

The votes to advance the two measures marked a major victory for public health advocates who previously failed to push the policies through and have struggled to overcome the tobacco industry’s influence in Sacramento. Without directly naming tobacco companies, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, said the bill was “aggressively lobbied by entities” who did not publicly register their opposition.

“They didn’t meet with me,” said Wood. “They didn’t testify in committee.”

Backers said raising the cigarette-buying age to 21 would discourage youth smoking that can morph into lifelong addiction. They drew comparisons to a decrease in traffic fatalities when the drinking age rose. Amendments exempt active-duty military members, who could still buy cigarettes at 18 with a military ID.

“Adolescent brains are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction,” said Wood, and “18-year-olds are much more likely to buy tobacco products for their 14-, 15-, 16-year-old friends.”

Republicans vigorously objected to the bill, first trying to block a vote and then calling it nonsensical to deprive 18-year-olds of cigarettes when they can vote, join the military and serve on juries.

“Is this a state that believes in the idea of individual liberty, in the freedom of choice, and that you can buy the products that you want even though they might harm you?” asked Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley. “I submit to you that we have moved beyond our basic ideals.”

With teen e-cigarette use surging as traditional smoking declines, public health officials and advocates have focused on regulating vaping. They warn of the product’s appeal to young people, noting that nicotine-containing vaping fluids come in an array of fruity flavors, and point to major tobacco companies investing in e-cigarettes as a sign that they are the next front in tobacco control wars.

“We cannot allow our next generation to become addicted to these new and unhealthy tobacco products,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda.

E-cigarette companies and industry groups have denounced efforts to treat their products as tobacco, arguing that they are smoking cessation devices.

After both measures stumbled in committee last year, legislators resurrected them through a special healthcare session. But Assembly Democrats declined to put them to a floor vote on the final night of the 2015 session after deciding during a lengthy caucus that they lacked the votes, according to legislators who were present.

By Thursday the time to act had dwindled. Landmark legislation allowing dying Californians to obtain lethal drugs, passed last year, cannot take effect until lawmakers end the special healthcare session. With a long-sought healthcare tax deal coming together this week, lawmakers faced increasing pressure to wrap things up.

Before the tobacco bills came to a vote, Assembly Republicans moved to terminate the special session. They argued that Democrats were distorting the intent of the special session.

“This is an abuse of the process and it makes a mockery of the state Assembly,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, who withheld votes on both bills.

Hanging over tobacco bills is a campaign for a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes. A coalition of healthcare and labor groups is pursuing the tax via a ballot initiative, having failed to persuade lawmakers to impose the tax, and that same group issued a floor alert urging legislators to vote for the tobacco bills.

While voters will get a say on the $2-a-pack statewide tax in November, Assembly members on Thursday also passed a measure allowing cities and counties to put local tobacco tax increase on the ballot. Republicans unsuccessfully argued the measure should require a two-thirds vote, since it affects taxes, and Assembly Bill 10 passed 44-24.

“Increasing the cost of cigarettes is the most powerful and direct way to reduce smoking,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert