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Calif. Lawmakers Raise Smoking Age to 21

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - California's legal smoking age will rise to 21 after the state Assembly approved two bills Thursday aimed at regulating the tobacco industry.

In an effort to stop youth smoking, lawmakers agreed to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 and also passed a sweeping bill that defines and regulates e-cigarettes or vapes as tobacco products.

The bills will go back to the state Senate, which previously passed the tobacco proposals, for approval of amendments and then finally to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

The legal smoking age bill passed the Assembly in a 46-26 vote and the e-cigarette regulations passed 50-20.

Lawmakers called the bills a breakthrough for public health and praised California for setting an example for the nation on tough tobacco laws.

"Raising the legal smoking age will help lower the number of young people who use tobacco, and that means healthier Californians and lower costs for taxpayers," Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a statement. "Advocates have said this is the most sweeping tobacco regulation in 50 years. California led the way for the nation with a workplace ban, and the restrictions in bars and restaurants."

Supporters of the bills hope the tougher restrictions will prevent teenagers from becoming addicted to tobacco and popular flavored vaping products, which they claim are explicitly marketed to young Californians.

More than 60 percent of California smokers start by the age of 18 and 97 percent start by age 26, according to the California Department of Public Health. Officials also estimate that Californians spend more than $9 billion on tobacco-related health care costs, including $3.5 billion in Medi-Cal funds.

The bills were introduced in 2015 but were held from an Assembly vote before the close of a 2015 legislative deadline. The Democrat-sponsored bills were then reintroduced during a special health care session called by Brown this past fall.

State Republicans accused the bills' authors of sneaking the tobacco proposals into a special session that was supposed to focus on creating ways to fund the state's bloated social health care system. They unsuccessfully proposed ending the special session before Thursday's vote.

"The governor did not call the second extraordinary session to debate the regulation of tobacco," Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, said.

Opponents of the tobacco bills blasted the proposals, pointing out that an 18-year-old would be allowed to join the military but not buy a pack of cigarettes. The only Republican votes were from Catharine Baker of Cathedral City and David Hadley of Manhattan Beach.

Following the vote, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, criticized the bills in a series of tweets . She tweeted that you can buy a house, join the military and smoke weed for "medicinal" purposes at age 18 but not buy cigarettes.

The bills were supported by the California Medical Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society, among others.

The proposals also allow individual counties to raise tobacco taxes and impose new workplace vaping laws. A proposal creating a $2-per-pack statewide tax will be decided by voters on the November ballot.

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