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What A Higher Smoking Age In California Could Mean For The Rest Of The Country

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 8/03/2016 Lydia O'Connor
ATHENA IMAGE © fuzznails via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

The California state legislature is weighing the possibility of raising the state's smoking age to 21 -- a move that health advocates hope will reverberate across the country.

The bill, which would increase the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21, passed in the state Assembly last week and returns to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass, before heading to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. 

Supporters say raising the smoking age will prevent people from ever picking up the habit. Ninety-five percent of smokers say they started before age 21. 

A new smoking age in California could have a ripple effect in other states, advocates hope. Hawaii became the first state in the country to raise the smoking age to 21 earlier this year. Yet California's status as the most populous state and its history as a force in the anti-tobacco movement could further nudge other states to introduce similar legislation.

"By increasing the tobacco age to 21, the nation’s largest state will provide a powerful boost for similar efforts nationwide," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a recent statement.

California has "been a movement leader" in the anti-tobacco crusade, the American Lung Association's director of national policy, Thomas Carr, told The Huffington Post. "It was one of the first states to do a lot of the things that we’re now seeing many states take on."

It was the first state to establish a tobacco prevention program in 1989 and the first to ban smoking in restaurants and bars in 1998, Carr said. In 1990, San Luis Obispo, California, became the first city in the nation to ban indoor smoking at all public places.

Today, more than 4,510 municipalities across the U.S. have enacted laws that restrict smoking, the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation reports. 

"I think [California's bill] could definitely cause some states to take a look at the issue," Carr continued, suggesting that Massachusetts and New York are likely candidates since their biggest cities have raised the smoking age to 21 in recent years. 

NBC analyst Larry Gerston said he thinks there's a very good chance that Brown will sign the legislation. "Brown is a social activist -- there’s no question about it," he said.

But when it comes to using higher taxes as a way to crack down on tobacco companies, California might not be the leader anti-smoking activists need.

"That’s what hurts tobacco, not the age limits; it’s the taxation," Gerston added, pointing to California's relatively low tobacco tax rate. According to data released by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in January, New York has the highest cigarette tax rate in the country, while California comes in a distant 35th

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