published on March 24, 2016 - 7:09 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

Recent efforts by California lawmakers to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 have predictably been met with widespread support from local health advocacy groups. However, the effect on local tobacco and e-cigarette retailers remains murky.

The smoking age change is part of a series of bills aimed at strengthening the regulation of tobacco and related products in California. The legislation has already been approved by the state Assembly and Senate and now awaits final approval from Governor Jerry Brown. The Governor’s 12-day signing window began last week and his decision is expected any day.
If passed, California would become the second state in the nation to impose a tobacco-use age restriction of 21 or older. Hawaii adopted a similar law earlier this year while New York City and Boston made the switch in 2014 and 2015, respectively.    
Among the other measures included in the six-bill series is a reclassification of electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. The change will allow the products to be regulated like tobacco and subject to a bevy of smoking ordinances already on the books at both the state and local level.
“There’s currently no oversight of the e-cigarette industry,” said Justina Felix, advocacy manager for the American Lung Association’s (ALA) Fresno office. “[Manufacturers] are not required to disclose what they’re putting in them and use of e-cigarettes by youth has risen sharply in recent years.”
The ALA co-sponsored several of the tobacco laws in the bill package, including the smoking age increase and e-cigarette definition change. Felix said such measures are necessary in order to help curb the industry’s popularity among youth and ensure better health outcomes for the general population.
“By increasing the age we can deter kids from starting the habit young,” Felix said. “Eighteen-year-olds are still in high school and we want to keep them from bringing these products in and exposing them to a younger crowd.”
The age between 18 and 21 is also a critical time period for many smokers, as they go from experimental to regular users, she said.
Some see the age increase as arbitrary, however, and Selma e-cigarette shop owner Jawad Subeh said the proposed change denies young adults the power to make decisions for themselves.
“At 18 years old, they let you go to war, but they don’t let you vape or smoke a cigarette. Why not just totally ban it then if they know it’s so bad for you,” he said.
Either way, Subeh said the new state age restriction is likely to have little impact on his shop—Selma’s Finest Hookah & Tobacco—since a majority of his customers are 25 or older.
“It doesn’t affect my business at all. I don’t target that youth demographic. They’re not our working-class customer and they don’t even have money for our products,” he said.
Instead he voiced concern over new restrictions from the local government, which he believes are unfairly targeting the business.
Last month, the City of Selma approved the classification of e-cigarettes as tobacco products amid a series of restrictions on tobacco and e-cigarette retailers. The new laws severely limit where tobacco and vape shops can be located within the city and establish new conditional-use permit requirements.
Among the restrictions are calls for tobacco shops to be located at least 600 feet from schools, churches, residential zones or libraries. Businesses will also need to install security cameras for review by city police.
“They’re passing some ridiculous laws. There’s no shopping centers or business zones that are located 600 feet away from all those things,” Subeh said.
While his shop is technically among a handful of tobacco and e-cigarette retailers grandfathered in to the new laws, Subeh said he worries about what will happen when his lease expires in six months.  If his landlord doesn’t let him renew, and he shuts down temporarily, he will need to apply as a new business and follow the new city rules, he said.
“They’re playing games and I’m looking for an attorney right now,” he said. “I’m looking into my legal options against the city because of how they are discriminating against me and my business.”
City Manager Ken Grey said the new laws are not driving businesses from the community, however, and are instead focused on protecting the city’s youth.
“I take it as confirmation on the state’s part that they’ve looked at the empirical evidence and come to the same conclusion,” he said. “The community and city council are proud to be leading the effort to reverse a trend in the proliferation of tobacco and vaping products.”
While the exact number of tobacco users under the age of 21 is hard to pin down, studies have shown that a majority of adult users pick up the habit prior to the age of 21, said Bessie Yang, health education specialist with the Tobacco Prevention Program at the Fresno County Department of Public Health.
The group works to educate the community on tobacco-related health concerns and is hopeful that the new legislation will reduce the number of smokers across all age groups, she said.
The number of smokers has steadily declined since the passage of the Prop. 99 tobacco tax in 1988, and the San Joaquin Valley is currently estimated to be home to 337,000 smokers, according to 2015 report by the California Department of Public Health.
“California has been quite progressive in declining smoking rates and actually has one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation. The state has the highest number of smokers because of the high population, but it’s actually a fairly low rate,” Yang said.
The Fresno County smoking rate currently stands at 15.4 percent compared to the statewide average of 13.8 percent, but advocates like Felix and Yang say the rates are likely to continue decreasing as a result of the new state legislation.
“We think [the new laws] would be a win because electronic cigarettes right now are everywhere. They’ve been a huge issue in recent years so [classifying them as tobacco] would go a long way in helping to educate the community about the dangers of the product,” Yang said.

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