Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguin proposed Tuesday to ban the sale of tobacco to youths under 21, saying there's been an alarming increase of underage tobacco use, including a large jump in the use of electronic cigarettes.
Arreguin said if the City Council passes his plan next month, Berkeley would join Healdsburg, New York City and the state of Hawaii as the only government agencies to bar such sales.
Currently, it's legal in California to sell tobacco products to youths who are over the age of 18.
Noting that Berkeley banned the use of e-cigarettes in public places earlier this year, Arreguin said, "Berkeley has been a leader in fighting smoking and increasing the age for buying cigarettes would be another step."
He said that according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the use of e-cigarettes by high school seniors has risen from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 17.2 percent in 2014, an increase of more than 250 percent.
Arreguin said that although e-cigarettes are perceived to be less harmful than traditional tobacco products, they're no less addictive and represent a gateway to conventional cigarettes. He said almost half of adolescents who have never smoked a traditional cigarette but use electronic cigarettes say they plan to smoke a cigarette.
Arreguin also said nearly 90 percent of smokers begin before the age of 18.
He said, "That's why we have to do everything we can to prevent our youths from getting sucked into such an addicting, life-threatening habit."
Arreguin said alcohol is deemed to be dangerous enough to require that buyers be at least 21 and he thinks tobacco should be considered equally "as dangerous to personal health and to the health of others."
Citing statistics from the nonprofit group DoSomething.org, Arreguin said studies have found that nearly all first use of tobacco takes place before high school graduation, about 1.5 million packs of cigarettes are purchased for minors annually and about 30 percent of teen smokers will continue smoking and die early from a smoking-related disease.
He said a high percentage of people who buy cigarettes for minors are between the ages of 18 and 20 so he thinks increasing the age for purchasing cigarettes will make it harder for young people to get them, even if it still wouldn't make it illegal for minors to smoke.
The idea is to decrease access and consumption of tobacco, Arreguin said.
In addition to increasing the age for buying traditional cigarettes, the proposed ordinance would raise to 21 the age for the sale of e-cigarettes and paraphernalia, he said.
If the ordinance is approved, stores that sell tobacco products to youths under 21 would lose their tobacco retail licenses and be subject to fines, Arreguin said.
The Berkeley City Council will consider Arreguin's proposal at its Sept. 15 meeting.