Craig Williamson, the president of the Cigar Association of America, told PJM he can’t believe 18-year-old men and women in America, who are judged to be old enough to vote and serve in the military, may soon not be allowed to smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes.
Legislatures in five states are poised to do exactly what angers Williamson — raising the age to legally buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.
At least one of Williamson’s peers would like Congress to take the lead on deciding how young is too young to smoke.
“This is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it,” Brian May, a spokesman for Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies in America, told CNN.
“We believe states and localities should defer to this process and allow FDA and Congress the opportunity to think through this issue further before enacting different minimum age laws.”
Anti-tobacco activists might soon call his bluff on that, if it is a bluff. There is new movement fueled by a recent study from the Institute of Medicine to make 21 the age to legally buy tobacco nationwide.
The Institute’s study showed the number of teenagers in America who smoke would fall by 12 percent if the legal age to buy tobacco went up from 18 to 21, if only because it would be harder for younger teens to find someone old enough to buy their smokes.
The study’s authors said it would mean “4.2 million fewer years of life lost.”
However, congressional action on legal smoking may turn out to be nothing but an asterisk of an afterthought when the history books on tobacco are written years from now. The sweep of state-by-state legislation is like a bullet train leaving Congress’ steam locomotive in the dust.
There are more than 50 municipalities where the legal smoking age is 21. New York City boosted its age to 21 two years ago.
The California Senate and the Hawaii Legislature have approved new laws that would block the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21. Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah have all raised their minimum age to 19, and New Jersey lawmakers are thinking about boosting their state’s minimum age for smoking from 19 to 21.
The Oregon and Washington state legislatures are also considering bills to raise the smoking age to 21.
But it is the 50th state that could become the first state in America to go with the 21-year age limit for tobacco. The Hawaii Legislature passed a bill in March to accomplish that. All it needs is the signature of Gov. David Ige (D) to become law.
A spokesman said Ige was still considering the legislation. But Ige did sign legislation in April that restricts the use of electronic smoking devices — e-cigarettes — everywhere that smoking is illegal.
California could run a close second to Hawaii. Legislation to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 in California is before the California State Assembly after being approved by the Senate.
“We will not sit on the sidelines while big tobacco markets to our kids and gets another generation of young people hooked on a product that will ultimately kill them,” said California Sen. Ed Hernandez (D), the chair of the Senate Health Committee who introduced the legislation.
“We need to wake up and stop making it so easy for tobacco companies to poison generation after generation of Californians,” he added.
This is not the first move against tobacco in California.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed into law an ordinance in May to prohibit the use of all tobacco products – including smokeless tobacco – at all baseball venues and athletic fields within the city and county of San Francisco, including fans and players at AT&T Park.
“San Francisco (has) entered the history books as the first city to take tobacco out of baseball,” said Matthew L. Myers, president, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “The home of the World Champion Giants has set an example that all of Major League Baseball and the rest of the country should quickly follow.”
But that is not to say everyone in California supports the move to raise the legal age to buy tobacco to 21.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times editorial board criticized then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for what became a successful attempt to raise the smoking age to 21 in his city.
“Government leaders should think twice about taking away the right of adults to buy a legal, if dangerous, product like cigarettes. And 18-year-olds are adults — allowed to sign legally binding contracts, to vote, to go to war and to seek and obtain a doctor’s prescription for Oxycontin,” the L.A. Times editorial board decided.
“True, the legal drinking age is 21 in every state. But that is justified by the fact that an 18-year-old’s dumb decision to drink may harm others. A decision to smoke harms only the smoker.”