California became the second state in the nation Thursday to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
The new smoking age took effect today after state Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of measures in May that sought to further reduce smoking rates, including a new law that limited the use of electronic cigarettes in public spaces.
California’s efforts to control tobacco use come months after Hawaii raised its minimum age to 21 in January.
Public health advocates like Tobacco Free Kids director John Schachter applauded Hawaii and California for raising the smoking age from 18 to 21, citing studies that show most people start smoking before they turn 21.
“We believe that raising the age of sale is a terrific idea towards our goal of a tobacco-free generation,” Schachter told the NewsHour.
CDC have estimated that nearly nine out of 10 smokers first tried using cigarettes by the time they turned 18. That number rose to 99 percent by age 26.
The Institute of Medicine estimated that raising the minimum purchasing age to 21 nationwide could decrease tobacco use among adults by 12 percent.
But some health advocates said states should go further and raise taxes on tobacco products.
This November, Californians will get their chance to do so when they vote on a ballot initiative that would increase the state’s cigarette tax from $0.87 to $2.00.
Schachter said the tax could be particularly effective.
“Every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces youth smoking by nearly 7 percent and overall cigarette consumption by 4 percent,” Schachter said. “Youth are particularly price sensitive.”
“Our results were very different,” Robert Kaestner, a University of Illinois at Chicago economics professor who has studied state tobacco taxes, told the NewsHour. “We found that a 10 percent tax increase would reduce smoking by around 0.5 percent.”
Kaestner said when a package of cigarettes already costs six dollars or more, a couple more dollars is a weak deterrent.
“People are already paying a lot of money,” Kaestner said. “People who love smoking, they have a strong preference. Everybody knows smoking is terrible for you, yet people still smoke,” he said.
Despite some concerns that a tax does not greatly reduce smoking rates, it does create money for health initiatives.
California’s Budget and Policy Center estimates the proposed tobacco tax will raise more than a billion dollars a year. That money will be distributed to Medicaid programs and tobacco prevention services.
Schachter said the key is for state leaders to realize that they need to a variety of tools to reduce smoking.
“There is no silver bullet for tobacco prevention and tobacco-free policies,” Schachter said. “The one key thing that we know for [California’s] ballot initiative is that the tobacco companies are spending billions marketing their product and they’ll likely pour money into opposing this ballot initiative in November.”