California must renew fight against tobacco

April 7, 2015

By Ed Hernandez, Richard Pan and Rob Bonta

We represent distinctly different parts of a diverse state, but we stand together when it comes to keeping communities safe and healthy, reducing the risk of illnesses associated with tobacco and increasing access to health care.

In 1964, the Surgeon General released a groundbreaking report that linked smoking to many health issues, including lung cancer and heart disease. It sparked a national movement to prevent tobacco-caused disease, and California has led the way with policies to curb tobacco use. Despite the progress we’ve made, tobacco remains the nation’s leading cause of preventable death – 480,000 people annually, more than alcohol, murder, illegal drugs, AIDS and motor vehicle accidents combined.

Major challenges remain in keeping addictive tobacco products out of the hands of young people and meeting the growing demand for medical treatment. We’re working with the Save Lives Coalition – a group of doctors, nurses, health care workers and nonprofit health care organizations – on these issues. We’ll be holding an event Wednesday before committee hearings about measures we have authored to confront these challenges on three fronts:

▪ Raise the legal age for buying tobacco products: About 90 percent of tobacco users start before the age of 21, and 75 percent of teen smokers continue into their adult years. Science points to a strong reason – young brains are more susceptible to tobacco addiction. Senate Bill 151 by Sen. Ed Hernandez would raise the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products from 18 to 21. By stopping young people from picking up the cigarette habit, SB 151 will reap a lifetime of dividends. A recent Institute of Medicine report concluded that making 21 the legal age would result in 200,000 fewer premature deaths a year nationwide.

▪ Increase the cost of smoking: California hasn’t increased its tobacco tax since 1998; the current 87 cents per pack ranks 33rd in the nation. Currently, 18 other states are considering tobacco tax hikes, which could put us even lower on the list. Senate Bill 591 by Sen. Richard Pan would raise our tobacco tax by $2 per pack, generating approximately $1.5 billion in revenue the first year alone.

▪ Invest in cures and care: Proceeds from the tobacco tax increase would be directed to the state’s tobacco control program and to improve access to health care – including the treatment of cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and other diseases related to tobacco use – for low-income California families and individuals.

Tobacco use results in $13 billion in health care costs annually, with more than $3.5 billion being used to treat Medi-Cal patients with tobacco-related illnesses. It isn’t new news that Medi-Cal is severely underfunded and already struggling to ensure patients have access to care. The $2 tax on tobacco products will help give the program the resources needed.

Assembly Bill 1396 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta would bring California in line with federal laws that set standards for Medi-Cal rates to achieve adequate access, and would require the state to report on accessibility to health care for the poor.

Two of our colleagues are also joining in these efforts. Senate Bill 140 by Sen. Mark Leno would ensure that electronic cigarettes are subject to the same state rules that prohibit smoking in certain public places, as well as prevent the sale of tobacco products to minors and ensure adequate methods of enforcement. Assembly Bill 768 by Assemblyman Tony Thurmond would ban smokeless tobacco at all ballparks in California with organized baseball, including all five major league stadiums.

In a recently released American Lung Association report, California received an “F” for tobacco prevention. California is failing our kids, our community and our commitment to public health. We’re committed to changing that and to putting the health of Californians first.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, an Azusa Democrat, represents the 22nd Senate District. Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, represents the 6th Senate District. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, represents the 18th Assembly District.