Orange County merchants prepare for smoking age to rise from 18 to 21

LAGUNA HILLS – The cigarettes are stashed behind the counter at Antojitos Latinos Market, along with the Lotto tickets. But starting next week, 18-year-old customers will only be allowed to buy a Scratcher, not a pack of smokes.

California’s legal smoking age will rise from 18 to 21 on June 9 and county health educators are working to ensure that retailers comply with the new law, which also applies to electronic cigarettes.

On Tuesday morning, Anabel Bolaños, supervisor for the Health Care Agency’s tobacco use prevention program, visited the convenience store to explain the change to Nima Mohajeri, whose family owns the Laguna Hills business. She also handed him a flier summarizing the law and asked if he had any questions.

“It makes perfect sense,” Mohajeri told her.

The legislation, which along with Hawaii’s is the strictest in the nation, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 4, giving public health officials little time to educate merchants and distribute the legally required signs that publicize the purchase age.

Mohajeri said if he doesn’t receive new signs in time, he will make his own so customers are aware of the change.

“I know the state is working furiously to deliver them by June 9,” Bolaños said.

Nearly 9 out of 10 smokers started before they were 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health advocates say the law is expected to reduce the number of teen smokers because it will be more difficult for them to get cigarettes from friends. It will also limit access until their brains have matured, resulting in less susceptibility to addiction.

For smokers 18 to 20, who will no longer be legally allowed to purchase cigarettes as of next week, county officials are working to publicize help for quitting with sites such as

“We do have some social media we’re heavily promoting to young adults,” Bolaños said.

Roughly 2,800 Orange County retailers are licensed to sell tobacco. The county makes unannounced visits throughout the year in areas where survey data from California Healthy Kids shows the highest rates of youth smoking. The ongoing visits will continue in the days leading up to the law taking effect.

Among Orange County teens, the 2014 survey found that 9 percent of 11th-graders polled had smoked cigarettes, while 20 percent reported vaping e-cigarettes. Thirty-eight percent of 11th-graders in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which includes students from Laguna Hills, reported that it was very easy to obtain cigarettes.

Mohajeri said after meeting with Bolaños, he planned to talk to his employees, who are already trained to check ID for customers who look under 30. He said he wasn’t worried about fewer sales.

“There’s a high school right around here and we want to make sure we’re taking care of our community,” Mohajeri said.

The agency doesn’t have any enforcement authority but the goal is to work with businesses to make sure that laws are followed. For instance, educators inform merchants of existing laws such as that single cigarettes can’t be sold and that tobacco must be kept out of customer reach.

After wrapping up the visit with Mohajeri, Bolaños drove a mile away to Villa Roma Deli and Market where Teresa Razo, who oversees operations, said she was glad to no longer have to differentiate which customers can buy alcohol and which can buy cigarettes.

“Now it’s going to be much easier,” Razo said. “You don’t have to think about it. It’s 21 overall.”

For information on quitting, call 866-NEW-LUNG.

Contact the writer: 714-796-3686

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