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New smoking laws start for California
The minimum age of sale for tobacco products in California increased from 18 to 21 as of Thursday. - photo by Photo Contributed

What 20-year-old Rachel Overturf could do legally Wednesday became illegal Thursday when California became the second state in the nation to raise the minimum legal age to purchase cigarettes.

The minimum age of sale for tobacco products in California increased from 18 to 21 as of Thursday, and for the first time e-cigarettes were added to the existing definition of tobacco products. California is the second state in the nation, following Hawaii, to raise the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21.

The legislature passed the law in March and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in May. The California Department of Public Health believes the age increase will result in fewer people taking up the habit of smoking and therefore, fewer smoking related deaths and health problems down the line. The CDPH states that about 34,000 Californians die each year from tobacco use. In addition, tobacco-related diseases cost Californians $18.1 billion each year in both direct and indirect healthcare costs due to premature death and low productivity due to illness.

The only exception to the law is for active military members.

“Today marks a significant moment in California history as new tobacco control laws go into effect statewide. This is the first time the Golden State has raised the age of sale for tobacco since the law first took effect 144 years ago,” said Dr. Karen Smith, California Department of Public Health director and state health officer. “Our focus is on reaching more than 34,000 retailers with tobacco licenses and vape shops to provide them the information and resources needed to comply with the new tobacco 21 law.” 

A 2015 study from the Institute of Medicine found that 90 percent of daily smokers reported they started smoking cigarettes before reaching age 19. The study found that raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco would have the greatest impact on those age 15 to 17 years. The study found that the majority of underage smokers obtain their tobacco from social sources, like friends and family, and that by raising the minimum age to 21 years it will be less likely that underage smokers will be in the same social circle as those that are underage.

While that theory may hold true for those under 18 years, Overturf believes the new law is unfair to people like her.

“I think changing the age to 21 is only going to encourage people aged 18 to 20 years to break the law, especially if you’re like me and you're 20 and have been smoking,” Overturf said. “It’s not going to make us quit. It’s just going to make us find ways to get the smoking products illegally. If at 18 you are an adult then you should be allowed to make adult decisions without the state government dictating our lives.”

As part of the new law defining e-cigarettes as tobacco products, e-cigarettes, e-liquids including vaping devices and accessories can no longer be sold in self-service displays. E-cigarettes are also not allowed in locations where smoking has long been prohibited, including public transit, worksites, restaurants, schools and playgrounds. 

Last year the CDPH issued a health advisory warning that e-cigarettes contain a level of toxicity that could prove harmful to users. The liquid solution used in e-cigarettes typically contains nicotine, and are not a clean burning alternative to cigarettes, according to the CDPH. E-cigarettes emit an aerosol that has been found to contain at least 10 chemicals that are on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

The report, State Health Officer’s Repot on E-Cigarettes: A Community Health Threat,” points to preliminary studies that have shown that using a nicotine containing e-cigarette for just five minutes causes similar lung irritation, inflammation, and effect on blood vessels as smoking a traditional cigarette.

According to the California Department of Education’s California Healthy Kids Survey, middle and high school teens are currently using e-cigarettes at much higher rates than traditional cigarettes. Studies also show that teens who use e-cigarettes are three times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes within a year. 

“California is taking a big step forward in preventing a new generation of young people from becoming addicted to nicotine,” said Dr. Smith. “The surge in e-cigarette use among teens and young adults is no accident. The tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing of e-cigarette gadgets and candy flavors is jeopardizing the health of our young people.”

To help retailers comply with these new laws, the CDPH has developed a series of educational materials, including age-of-sale warning signs, window clings reminding customers of the new law and tips to help clerks check identification. Retailers can be charged with a misdemeanor if they are caught selling tobacco to those under 21 years.