How Raising California Smoking Age Could Save Lives

Experts discuss how changing law could save lives.

— -- A California bill that could potentially raise the smoking age to 21 could have a wide-ranging effect on young adult health in the state, according to experts.

Many smokers start as teens, even before they are legally of age to purchase cigarettes, but experts say if the age is raised to 21, it could help stop some teens from becoming addicted to cigarettes.

“This is California’s chance to make history by drastically reducing Big Tobacco’s ability to target and poison our youth. We will no longer stand idly by while they continue to get generation after generation addicted,” said Sen. Ed Hernandez in a statement. “We need to make this happen for the sake of our children and the overall health of our state.”

Although it remains unclear if Gov. Jerry Brown will approve the measure, members from the vaping industry issued a statement that they were disappointed that their products were lumped in with other tobacco products in the bill, which they were urging Brown to veto.

“Treating vapor products like tobacco opens the door to unfair and unwarranted tobacco tax-related implications that will discourage smokers from switching to what science says is an effective and significant alternative to combustible tobacco,” said Cynthia Cabrera, president of Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents the vape industry.

One 2015 report by the Institution of Medicine attempted to break down how raising the age to buy tobacco products would translate into lives saved. The report said that 90 percent of smokers start before they are 19.

They found that raising the legal age to buy tobacco products would help cut teen smoking, since an 18-year-old high school senior would no longer be able to legally buy cigarettes for their friends.

"The majority of underage users rely on social sources -- like family and friends -- to get tobacco," the report noted.

The report estimates that if the age to buy tobacco products was raised to 21 nationwide it would mean a 12 percent decrease in adult smokers and an estimated 223,000 fewer premature deaths. These results include an saving an estimated 50,000 people from lung cancer deaths. In total raising the legal age to 21 could mean "4.2 million fewer years of life lost" for people between 2000 and 2019. The researchers acknowledge it would take decades for these results to become clear.

Stanton Glantz ,a professor of tobacco control at the University of California San Francisco, said the legislation as a whole was "stunning" and could have major impacts if it's approved.

"The industry, the way they do their marketing is they target the youngest legal age they and in a way that will spill down," said Glantz of the tobacco industry. "By moving the age up to 21 it will make it much harder for the tobacco companies to reach teenagers."

"Very few people start smoking after they’re 21," he said.

Glantz pointed out that many teens experiment with smoking but that the years between 18 and 21 are crucial, since it's when these smokers become fully addicted.

"It changes the way the brain develops when adolescents smoke in ways that are permanent or nearly permanent," Glantz said. "To the extent that this measure reduces the amount of nicotine use by adolescents is going to have tremendous long term smokers."