Debate Over Boosting the Smoking Age

ByABC News
February 25, 2002, 6:12 AM

Feb. 25 -- California doctors are expected to vote this week on a resolution that would advocate laws increasing the legal age for the purchase of tobacco products to 21, from 18.

The Golden State is renowned for its aggressive anti-smoking campaign, including slick ads that skewer the tobacco companies. That campaign has helped cut smoking in the state by more than 50 percent over the past decade.

But the state's doctors want to up the ante with a change in the age limit.

"To move the smoking age up to 21 for a disease or substance that still kills 480,000 people a year is logical," said Jack Lewin, head of the California Medical Association. "It's a California kind of thing."

The resolution, which would match the smoking age to the legal drinking age, is controversial because the burden of enforcement would fall on retailers.

Can It Be Enforced?

"All the evidence that's out there shows that it is unenforceable at the age of 18," said Dr. David Privera, a member of the association. "It will be utterly unenforceable at 21."

"We are against all cigarette smoking," said Dr. Robert Lull. "We just think that with limited state resources that the resources should be channeled towards education."

The association says there is evidence the tobacco companies are actively pursuing the young adult market. The sponsors hope the resolution would counteract that effort.

But opponents say the tactic could hurt other anti-smoking efforts, and that resources should be channeled toward education programs.

Civil Rights Issues

If the association passes the resolution, it will likely be turned into a bill by a state lawmaker. But the one physician in the legislature says civil liberty issues may outweigh health issues on this one.

"I think that people are going to wonder whether 18-year-olds who can join the armed forces should have the right to smoke and make that choice on their own," said Assemblyman Keith Richman.

Utah, Alaska and Alabama have set 19 as the legal age for the purchase of tobacco products. But if the measure becomes law in California, it would be the first state to make the leap to 21. ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.