January 30, 2015 / 6:46 AM / 3 years ago

California lawmaker aims to raise smoking age to 21

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A California lawmaker introduced legislation on Thursday that aims to raise the legal smoking age to 21 from 18, his office said in a statement, just over a week after a similar move by Washington state’s top lawyer.

The bill also comes a day after California’s top health official said electronic cigarettes are threatening to unravel the state’s decades-long effort to reduce tobacco use.

Democratic State Senator Ed Hernandez of West Covina, who chairs the chamber’s health committee, brought the bill in hopes of keeping more teens from starting smoking.

“We can no longer afford to 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,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Some 21,300 children begin smoking in the state every year, Kimberly Amazeen of the American Lung Association in California said in the statement, adding that about 40,000 Californians die every year from the effects of smoking.

Last Wednesday, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson proposed legislation that would put purchasing and possessing tobacco and nicotine-vapor products on equal footing with the state’s minimum age for drinking and using recreational marijuana.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths annually, or one in every five deaths overall, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most U.S. states set the legal smoking age at 18, while a handful have set it higher at 19. Some cities and counties, including New York City and Hawaii County, have already raised the smoking age to 21.

Altria Group Inc, which owns Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, could not be immediately reached for comment.

On Wednesday, California Department of Public Health Director Ron Chapman blasted electronic cigarettes as addictive in a report, as the state legislature debates whether to regulate the devices under the state’s tobacco regulations.

Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Stephen Coates

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