Jake is a high school sophomore in San Mateo. He’s 15 but looks a lot older. Partly it’s the tattoo sleeve on his right arm. Partly it’s the little growth of reddish hair he wears on his chin. But he says it’s none of that.
“This,” Jake says, waving his lit cigarette in the air, “gets everyone. Makes me [look] like I’m 18.” (He didn’t want his last name revealed because he’s an underage smoker.)
If the governor signs a bill that was approved by the legislature March 3, Jake’s age will become even more problematic for his tobacco habit — it would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.
And that, said University of California, San Francisco tobacco policy researcher Rachel Barry, is one of the likely consequences of moving the age up to 21. It will mean that the younger smokers will find it much harder to score their smokes.
“From a policy point of view, if you increase the smoking age to 21, the young underage smokers won’t have relationships with the older up-to-21 age,” Barry said. Younger high-schoolers like Jake know plenty of 18-year-olds because they attend the same school, she said.
Barry said there is a wide body of research that shows brain development continues until age 25, and that nicotine addiction can have lasting effects on developing brains, so upping the legal smoking age to 21 is a “no-brainer.”
“The difference among those younger people is there’s an increased risk of addiction because the brain structure is altered,” Barry said.
According to Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), who wrote California’s age-21 legislation, about 90 percent of tobacco users start smoking before they turn 21, and 80 percent of lifetime users start before the age of 18.
Opponents have argued raising the smoking age is unfair because someone under 21 could die for their country in the armed forces but wouldn’t be allowed to smoke. Hernandez said he addressed that by exempting military personnel from the legislation.
The cost to the state for expanded enforcement would be minimal, “in the hundreds of thousands” of dollars, according to Senate analysis of the bill. The real cost would come from an estimated $168 million a year of lost tobacco tax money, which would be balanced on the ledger by an estimated $2 billion in long-term savings in health care costs by targeting 18- to 21-year-olds, according to the analysis.
Overall, a 2014 UCSF study reported tobacco use among all California smokers cost the state a total of $18.1 billion, with $9.8 billion of that in direct health care expenditures over the lifetime of the state’s smokers.
The national Institute of Medicine estimated in a March 2015 report there would be a 12 percent drop in teen and young adult cigarette smoking if all states raised the minimum age to 21.
Among the younger 15- to 17-year-olds, according to a 2007 study, changing the legal smoking age to 21 would decrease smoking prevalence by more than 50 percent within seven years.
James Mosher, an expert on alcohol policy in Santa Cruz County, said the addictive qualities of alcohol and tobacco are similar, and that restricting tobacco use among older teens will have a huge impact on younger teens, in much the same way that alcohol restrictions work.
“As the drinking age went up, underage drinking went down in all instances,” Mosher said. “It’s exactly the same with cigarettes. It’s a supply issue.”
California would be the second state, after Hawaii, to change the age limit to 21. More than 100 cities across the nation have passed similar restrictions, and several states currently are considering age-21 smoking laws, including Oregon, Washington and Illinois.
The California legislature on March 3 passed a package of six anti-tobacco bills, including changing the smoking age to 21. Usually, legislation reaches the governor the day after bills are approved by the legislature, but in this case the governor still hasn’t received the package of six bills, about a month after a legislative vote.
There’s a political reason for that: The tobacco industry reportedly threatened to launch an initiative in reaction to the bills’ passage, in time for the November election. The stall tactic — by parking the bills for a time in the administrative “Engrossing and Enrolling” agency — could short-circuit that threat.
Those bills are expected to hit the governor’s desk April 11. He then has 12 days to approve or reject them. If he signs them, they would take effect June 9.
One bill would regulate e-cigarettes along with traditional cigarettes, so the legal age would change to 21 for vaping as well.
A spokesman for Altria Group, which represents Philip Morris tobacco company, said it supports a minimum age of 18 for the sale of all tobacco products, “as established in the federal Tobacco Control Act of 2009.” That statute required the FDA to study the public health implications of raising the minimum age, and no age-limit change should be made till that research is completed, said Altria spokesman David Sutton.
“This is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it,” Sutton said. “We believe states and localities should defer to this process and give Congress the opportunity to evaluate this issue before enacting different minimum age laws.”
To Jake, more analysis won’t change anything for him; he said he doesn’t care about any of those laws.
“I’ll get cigarettes if I want them,” he said. “I like them. So yeah, I’ll keep smoking.”