Retailers roll with new restriction on tobacco sales to minors


Renner_Tobacco21PhotoAt convenience stores and gas stations across the state, bright yellow signs are posted prominently on front doors: “Under 21/ No Tobacco.”

Libby Brown, a 16-year-old from Turlock, has no problem with the new state law, which went into effect in June, even though it raised the legal smoking age from 18. She wasn’t planning to smoke anyway.

I think it’s a good law because it will make it so there’s not as many smokers,” she said.

But 18-year-old smoker Paige Shafer, who lives in North San Juan, is upset that her once legal right to use tobacco has been abruptly taken away. She now has to get others who meet the age limit to get her cigarettes.

I think they should do a grandfather clause,” she said. “You can’t let us do it and then say, no you can’t. I don’t think it will work very well.”

She also complained that there wasn’t enough notice about the new law, which went into effect just five weeks after it was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The only exception to the age limit is active military service members. Those with a military ID card who are 18 and over may still legally purchase tobacco.

The law is enforced by the public health department with random sting inspections at local stores and by local law enforcement. Civil penalties for breaking the law range from $400-$600 for a first-time violation to $6,000 for multiple infractions plus the loss of a license to sell tobacco.

In a teleconference with reporters when the law went into effect, California Department of Public Health Director Karen Smith, M.D., said the goal of the law is to prevent a new generation of young people from being addicted to nicotine.

The department estimates that 217,000 California young people between 12 and 17 smoke either traditional cigarettes or e-cigarettes. According to Smith, the longer people wait to start smoking, the more likely they are to never pick up the habit at all.

A 2015 Institute of Medicine Report said that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 nationally would eventually reduce the smoking rate by about 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent.

Tobacco-related diseases cost California $17.1 billion each year in healthcare costs due to premature death or low productivity from illnesses, the public health department said.

Bishnu Subedi, owner of Brighton Street Grocery, a small store in Grass Valley that sells tobacco, said it hasn’t been hard to follow the law. Most young people know about and accept the law. He has only seen a few people under 21 ask to buy cigarettes. While he expects the new law to lower his revenues, he understands the reasons for it.

Denis Bratan, a clerk at a Chevron gas station minimart in Roseville, has had a similar experience. He said only one under-age person pressed him to sell cigarettes. Bratan, 21, said he is indifferent to the law because he doesn’t smoke but he knows some in the 18-20 age group who are mad. “The law is to prevent new smokers but everyone who was already a smoker is collateral damage,” he said.

There are about 240,000 smokers between the ages of 18-20, said California Tobacco Control Program Branch Chief April Roeseler. However, the new law only penalizes the retailer, not the smoker. Penal Code Section 308 was amended to remove language that made it illegal for underage young people to purchase, receive or possess tobacco, Roeseler said.

Moreover, Roesler said underage smokers can get help quitting by calling the California Smokers’ Helpline at 1-800-No-BUTTS (800-662-8887) or by visiting The helpline is available in six languages.

The new law isn’t affecting much at Sacramento City College because the campus was already planning to go tobacco free in August, said Rick Brewer, public information officer at the school. Those plans were in the works for more than a year. The only place people will be allowed to smoke on campus is in their car in the parking lot with the windows rolled up.

He has seen very little push-back to the law as most people understand the health benefits of smoking bans. “People in this age really do understand there are fewer and fewer places where smoking is allowed,” he said.

It’s a similar situation at San Francisco State University, which stopped selling tobacco in 2003 and has been smoke-free since 2004. The campus takes a positive rather than punitive approach when it comes to enforcing the ban. Police carry educational cards they can give to smokers listing the reasons to give up tobacco.

Our focus is educational,” said Gene Chelberg, the college’s associate vice president of student affairs. “Not only is it bad for you but it is bad for the community.”

Andrew Stuart, 17 of Modesto, believes smoking is losing favor in the teen population. He is glad the minimum age to use tobacco is now aligned with the minimum age to use alcohol.

The drinking age is 21 so you might as well have that as the smoking age because it’s really addictive,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to have one addictive thing at 18 and one addictive thing at 21.”


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