A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee voted Monday to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The vote of the Land Use Committee was 3-0 to prohibit retailers from selling tobacco products -- including smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes -- to those under age 21.
The full board will consider the ordinance next Tuesday, March 1. If the measure passes and is signed by the mayor, San Francisco would join more than 120 cities nationally -- including Boston and New York -- in approving the change. Hawaii raised the age statewide, effective Jan. 1. In California, Healdsburg and Berkeley have both approved the higher age. A bill in the California Assembly to raise the age statewide stalled last fall.
Proponents of the change say that many teenagers access cigarettes and other tobacco products from friends who are old enough to legally buy them. Raising the age to 21 moves legal buyers out of the social circle of most high school students, advocates say.
"This is an important public health issue," said Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, who said that teenagers who take up smoking are more likely to get "hooked for the long term," but those who start older are less likely to do so.
"If we can make it harder for young people to get access to tobacco, we will see significant public health benefits," he said.
A landmark study from the prestigious Institute of Medicine reached a similar conclusion in an analysis published last year. The panel found that if the minimum legal age to buy tobacco were raised to 21, tobacco use by would drop by 12 percent by the time today's teens reached adulthood.
David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco industry leader Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, said that the company supports the minimum age of 18 and called the question of raising the minimum age "a complex issue."
He said cities and states should defer to Congress and the Food and Drug Administration to "evaluate the issue."
Tom Briant, with the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, raised a different issue. He said that California law "specifically preempts a local government from adopting a higher age to buy tobacco products." The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Healdsburg ultimately suspended enforcement of raising the minimum age to 21 after being threatened with a lawsuit by Briant's organization.
While California law sets many aspects of tobacco regulation, including the minimum age of purchase, Wiener is confident that San Francisco's ordinance would withstand legal scrutiny.
"We believe -- and our city attorney believes -- that this ordinance is very compatible with state law," he said. "We will prevail in a challenge and a lawsuit by the tobacco industry."
Briant also said his organization believes that people who are 18 should have the right to make decisions about what lawful products to use. "Since someone who is 18 can get married, can serve in the military, can vote," he said, "they are of age to make an adult decision whether or not to buy or use tobacco products."
Advocates of the change counter that the drinking age is 21, and many states set 21 as the minimum age for casino gambling.
A national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that three out of four adults favor making 21 the minimum age for sale of tobacco products -- and that includes seven out of 10 current adult smokers.