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    Calif. Considers Raising Smoking Age

    Medical association's endorsement gaining momentum with lawmakers.

    SAN FRANCISCO -- The state with the nation's toughest anti-tobacco laws may get even tougher as state officials are said to be considering increasing the legal smoking age in California from 18 to 21.

    The California Medical Association voted unanimously to urge the change at its annual meeting Feb. 24, and state lawmakers say a bill would be introduced this session.

    California would become the first state to make it illegal for youths under 21 to buy tobacco products. In 46 other states and the District of Columbia, the legal age is 18. In Alaska, Alabama and Utah, it's 19.

    California already is the only state that bans smoking in bars and private workplaces and one of two that prohibit retailers from advertising tobacco within 1,000 feet of schools, USA Today reported.

    The state legislature is expected to raise cigarette taxes this year from 87 cents to $1.52 a pack, highest in the nation. California outlaws most cigarette vending-machine purchases and requires most retailers to keep tobacco products behind the counter.

    The drives to raise California's minimum smoking age and cigarette tax are part of an aggressive effort this year by anti-tobacco forces. At least a dozen states are considering hefty cigarette tax hikes to cope with budget deficits. Last week, Connecticut raised its tax from 50 cents to $1.11 a pack, the nation's third highest.

    Although the American Medical Association has endorsed raising the legal smoking age to 21 since 1987, the California association's move has not gained immediate support throughout the anti-tobacco lobby.

    Anti-smoking groups also contend that if the tobacco industry is serious about limiting smoking to adults, it should support raising the legal age. Tom Ryan of Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, says the industry will stay out of the California debate. "Where we are focusing our efforts is enforcing existing laws," he said.

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