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California Proposal Would Raise Legal Smoking Age to 21 - 2002-06-04

California legislators want to restrict smoking to people 21 or older. The West Coast state already has some of the strongest anti-smoking laws, and the highest taxes on cigarettes, in the country.

If the proposal passes, California would also have the highest age for tobacco use in the United States. It is now legal to smoke in California at age 18, as it is in all U.S. states except Alabama, Alaska and Utah, where the minimum age is 19.

The American Lung Association says 90 percent of smokers start as teenagers. And in California high schools, 28 percent of students smoke. Dr. Jack Lewin of the California Medical Association said restricting tobacco use for an additional three years would drastically cut that number. "By the time we reach the age of 21, our thinking has changed enough, [we have] enough maturity, that most people will make the decision not to smoke," Dr. Lewin said.

California has banned smoking in all public buildings, bars, restaurants and places of employment. A state surcharge meant to discourage smoking has pushed the cost of cigarettes beyond $4 a pack. And a settlement in a state lawsuit against the tobacco industry pays for anti-tobacco ads. But California state senator Joe Dunn said more needs to be done to counteract industry efforts at recruitment.

"The tobacco industry loses 400,000 customers in the United States every single year to tobacco-related deaths. They need to replace those customers to survive," Mr. Dunn said.

As a result of lawsuits against the major tobacco companies, the industry has agreed not to target children in its advertising. A spokesman said Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco firm, believes enforcement of existing laws would do more to curb youth smoking than raising the minimum age for smokers. Officially, however, the company is neutral on the proposal.

California smokers complain bitterly about tightening restrictions being imposed in Sacramento, the state capital. "Maybe they're going to ask me to send my monthly salary to Sacramento and sometimes send me back a pack of cigarettes for the month," said one smoker, fearing tobacco taxes will climb even higher.

California governor Gray Davis has proposed another $0.50 per pack surcharge on cigarettes to help pay the state's $23 billion budget deficit. And health activists want an additional tax for more anti-smoking ads.

"Officials at the World Health Organization say that every day, three thousand children around the world become smokers, and one-third of them will die prematurely because of the habit. Most of the world's 1.2 billion smokers are in developing countries, with the largest number in Asia," he said.