San Francisco Looks at Raising Minimum Age for Buying Tobacco to 21

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Monday, November 16, 2015 | Heather Knight | Categories:
San Francisco Looks at Raising Minimum Age for Buying Tobacco to 21

S.F. looks at raising minimum age for buying tobacco to 21

 

Published 8:00 pm, Monday, November 16, 2015

San Francisco would become the second major city in the country, after New York, to raise the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 under legislation to be introduced Tuesday by Supervisor Scott Wiener.

The policy has gained traction around the country, with New York City making the change in 2014 and the state of Hawaii adopting it earlier this year. Santa Clara County is also one of about 80 governments around the country that have raised the cigarette buying age to 21, the same threshold as buying alcohol.

An attempt to pass the same law in the California Legislature stalled this year.

Wiener authored the San Francisco legislation, which is co-sponsored by Supervisor Eric Mar. The two were the lead backers of a failed effort to levy a tax on soda and other sugary drinks at the ballot last year and have often linked the soda and tobacco industries in their discussions about the importance of government regulating matters of public health.

“Cigarettes are one of the leading causes of death and illness in the country,” Wiener said. “We need to do everything in our power to reduce smoking, and when you make it harder for young people to access cigarettes, they smoke less.”

But even if Wiener and Mar secure the backing of their fellow supervisors and the mayor, they could be in for a rough road ahead. The Sonoma County town of Healdsburg passed the same legislation this summer, but said it wouldn’t enforce it after legal threats from the National Association of Tobacco Outlets.

Industry’s argument

The tobacco industry group said cities can’t override California’s age 18 for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products. A woman who answered the phone at the National Association of Tobacco Outlets’ headquarters in Minnesota said nobody was available to comment on the San Francisco proposal.

But during the Healdsburg debate, the organization’s executive director, Thomas Briant, told The Chronicle that if 18-year-olds can be drafted to serve in the military, they should be able to buy tobacco.

“We believe that all adults 18 and older have a right to purchase legal products,” he said at the time.

Wiener said the city has never shied away from defending important legislation in court.

“This is an industry that, like the soda industry, has limitless resources and is able to threaten litigation, which can be very expensive,” he said. “Fortunately, in San Francisco, we have perhaps the best municipal law office in the country and we are used to fighting large industries and winning.”

History of legislation

San Francisco has long been at the forefront of legislation aimed at curbing smoking and has banned smoking in restaurants, bars, playgrounds, parks and taxis; on public transit vehicles, wharves, docks and athletic fields; and at bus stops, golf courses and even charity bingo games.

A cutting-edge local law in 2008 banned the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, and the city this year banned the use of tobacco products at ball fields, including AT&T Park.

Backers say raising the age to purchase tobacco is an important next step. Bob Gordon, co-chairman of the San Francisco Tobacco-Free Coalition, said smokers almost always report taking their first drags in their early to mid-teens. Very few addicts started after age 19, he said.

Raising the purchasing age helps in that high school students know a lot of 18-year-olds they can ask to buy cigarettes for them, but are less likely to have 21-year-olds in their social circles, he said.

Dr. Mark Rubinstein, who specializes in adolescent medicine at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, said research shows raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 leads to a 25 percent decrease in teen smoking. He added that those who wait until later in life to try cigarettes are also less likely to become addicted to them.

“If we can help kids get past the highest risk period, we may prevent future addiction,” he said.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and kills more than 480,000 people a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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