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California Shouldn't Raise Smoking Age To 21

The mafia really ought to write nice, personalized thank-you letters to former Democratic Gov. David Paterson of New York and the state legislature.

When New York's political leaders raised taxes on cigarettes in 2010 -- punishing New Yorkers with highest-in-the-nation prices and pushing the cost of a pack to $10.60 on average -- smuggling and organized crime enjoyed a renaissance.

The result? Revenue from cigarette taxes dropped by a whopping $400 million over five years, according to the state's comptroller, and studies showed smokers weren't quitting, reported. Instead, they were buying from smugglers and ordering them online from out-of-state and smoke shops on tribal land.

Now California's considering a similar measure that could hike the price of a pack of cigarettes by $2, raise the legal age for buying smokes to 21, and regulate electronic cigarettes the same way their tobacco counterparts are regulated.

Attempts to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 have become de rigueur among state lawmakers, who usually point to studies that show the vast majority of smokers pick up the habit before they're 26. A March 5 editorial in the New York Times cited the same statistic in arguing for California's effort to raise the legal smoking age. That view is bolstered by another statistic showing most smokers have their first cigarette before they're 19.

What those studies ignore is the fact that most teenage smokers aren't legally buying cigarettes anyway. Studies have repeatedly shown that enforcement campaigns aimed at preventing kids from getting cigarettes don't actually work, as the Los Angeles Times points out.

State studies, like a 2007 report by the Oklahoma Department of Health, consistently find that most kids get their cigarettes through "social sources" ("borrowing" them from other kids and older kids), paying older kids or adults to purchase them, or stealing cigarettes from relatives or stores.

Kids haven't been able to purchase cigarettes for a long time, and penalties against businesses caught selling to minors are so punitive that clerks will ask anyone under 35 years old to present ID when buying. If kids aren't getting their cigarettes legally, then raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes isn't going to impede their ability to get them.

Then there's the issue of e-cigarettes.

The U.S. has rarely been receptive to harm reduction, whether it involved drugs or cigarettes. Some European countries have had enormous success cutting down on drug overdoses and crime by employing harm reduction methods, but as Americans, we like our moral quandaries absolute, black and white, good versus evil.

That goes for electronic cigarettes too. A 2014 study by the National Institutes of Health found that a harm reduction program using e-cigarettes is "the most feasible policy option likely to substantially reduce tobacco-attributable illness and death in the United States over the next 20 years."

The study noted that cessation methods fail 90 percent of the time, and despite the government's best efforts to curb smoking, the number of deaths attributed to smoking-related illnesses hasn't dipped since 2004.

So here we have a technological breakthrough that could seriously put a dent in tobacco-related deaths and potentially save trillions in healthcare costs, and the breakthrough's being demonized by misguided crusaders making unsubstantiated claims that e-cigarettes make it more likely that kids will take up smoking.

The California bill would regulate e-cigarettes the same way regular cigarettes are regulated, and would restrict the use of e-cigarettes in all public places, just like old-fashioned smoking. What kind of lunacy compels people to restrict access and availability of a proven harm reduction method?

California lawmakers should also be wary of creating an underground economy and black market, things that spring up every time states or countries fiddle with cigarette prices. They should take New York and Canada as cautionary tales of what can happen when skyrocketing cigarette prices create a new kind of demand.

Most of all, the California proposal is based on bunk science. Legislators in the state's lower house, who will decide on the bill's fate now that it's been passed in the senate, should side with reason and reject this misguided attempt at legislating public health.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: New York Times, National Institutes of Health, Oklahoma State Department of Health,, Tax Foundation, Los Angeles Times / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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