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California just voted to raise the age people can buy cigarettes to 21

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

California’s Senate just voted to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21, as part of a larger effort to crack down on harmful tobacco use in the state.

If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill — which he is expected to do — California will become the second state, after Hawaii, to raise the age threshold for buying cigarettes. Across the country, more than 100 cities, including New York City and Boston, have also already done so.

Still, the move to raise the tobacco-purchasing age in the nation’s most populous state is a huge victory for public health experts, who have long been pushing to make it harder for teenagers to get their hands on cigarettes.

One report, from the Institute of Medicine, predicts that increasing the minimum legal age to 21 will reduce smoking initiation rates by 25 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds. That’s because even though teenagers under age 18 already weren’t allowed to purchase tobacco products, raising the age minimum will restrict the number of family members and friends who can buy cigarettes for them.

If so, that would be a huge accomplishment. As individuals get older, they’re less likely to pick up smoking because they are more capable of weighing the long-term health risks against short-term incentives to smoke. About 90 percent of daily smokers report first trying cigarettes before the age of 19, according to the Institute of Medicine report.

The measure passed despite intense lobbying from the tobacco industry and over objections from Republican lawmakers, who fear the measure unfairly restricts personal choice.

"I don't smoke. I don't encourage my children to," Republican Assembly member Donald Wagner told KQED public radio in San Francisco. "But they're adults, and it's our job to treat our citizens as adults, not to nanny them."

In addition to raising the minimum legal age, other anti-tobacco measures that passed would regulate electronic cigarettes like other tobacco products, expand smoke-free areas, and allow counties to levy even bigger taxes on cigarettes than the state’s 87 cent-per-pack tax.

Go deeper:

  • Vox’s German Lopez explains why raising the minimum legal age to 21 would save lives.
  • Cigarette smoking may be impacting the development of teenagers’ brains, according to one UCLA study.
  • Time magazine helps you understand why the teen brain is so drawn to risky behavior.