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California Raises Smoking Age To 21


As of today, in California, you must be 21 years old to buy tobacco products. That includes cigarettes, chewing tobacco and, somewhat controversially, e-cigarettes. California is only the second state to increase the smoking age to 21. Hawaii was the first. State Senator Ed Hernandez wrote the legislation, and he joins us now from the state capitol in Sacramento. Welcome to the program.

ED HERNANDEZ: Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: Eighteen-year-olds can vote. They're adult under the law. Why shouldn't they be able to smoke?

HERNANDEZ: Because it's a health hazard, and if they become addicted, it's only going to lead to one thing. It's going to lead to death or disease. And we need to make sure that we keep our young adults - not to become addicted to tobacco.

SIEGEL: There is, though, an exception made under this law for active duty military. Why? Why then should there be an exception?

HERNANDEZ: Well, there is an exception. We had some vote problems. And one of the members was asking for that amendment, and - in order for us to get it off the floor - and we took it.

SIEGEL: How confident are you that convenience stores around the state have gotten the message about the change in the smoking age?

HERNANDEZ: Very confident. We've been getting a lot of calls from various vendors, the various association represents of businesses. We've been communicating with the Department of Public Health to make sure they get all the signage out. And we've been trying to get out as much messages as we can to the public, as well.

SIEGEL: Now, we know from experience with alcohol that people under the legal age find ways to get ahold of beer, for example. How concerned are you about a black market for cigarettes either forming or becoming larger as a result of this law?

HERNANDEZ: Well, that's always been a problem, as you mentioned, even with alcohol. However, if you look at young adults who are, say, 16 or 17, they're more likely to have friends within their social sphere who are 18. Now that the age has changed to 21, that's going to make it a lot more difficult. Even if the few that do get the product - there's going to be a significant amount of adolescents that aren't going to. And in the long-term, it's going to definitely save lives, but, more importantly, reduce healthcare costs.

SIEGEL: What do the experts tell you about compliance with a move like this?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I mean, if you look at what happened in the East Coast cities that did it, it not only was effective in that particular city, but in surrounding areas. A lot of the scientific evidence - but, more in particular, the Institution of Medicine study - showed that there will be significant impacts immediately and in long term.

SIEGEL: The e-cigarette industry strongly opposed the legislation that groups vaping products in the same category as tobacco. They claim vaping is a safer alternative. The evidence is somewhat unclear. Why include them in this?

HERNANDEZ: And the reason why we include them - because even though they're claiming it's a safer product, they are still inhaling nicotine, and nicotine is an addictive product. And studies show that if, you know, an adolescent starts smoking and are becoming addicted to nicotine, before the age of 21, they're going to be lifetime smokers. And, you know, whether it's a safer product or not, I mean, we know that the effects of nicotine are bad.

SIEGEL: Have you ever been a smoker?

HERNANDEZ: Never been a smoker and don't like the smell of it. And I encourage my kids not to, and luckily they aren't.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Hernandez, thanks for talking with us about your bill.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: California State Senator Ed Hernandez, who joined us from Sacramento. We're talking about the new law in California. You have to be 21 to be able to buy tobacco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.