The California State Senate has voted to approve a bill to raise the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products from the current 18 years to 21.

If the bill, which now goes to the State Assembly, becomes a law, it would make California the U.S. state with the highest legal smoking age.

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 26 to 8.

Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez, who introduced the bill, said an estimated 90 percent of tobacco users get started on the habit before age 21.

He expressed the hope that a higher legal age might dissuade teenagers from taking up smoking, citing a study conducted for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that concluded a hike in the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21 could reduce smoking by 12 percent over what current control polices have managed.

The bill faced heavy opposition from the tobacco industry and groups like the Cigar Association of America and the California Retailers Association.

"Tobacco companies know that people are more likely to become addicted to smoking if they start at a young age," Hernandez said.

"We will not sit on the sidelines while big tobacco markets to our kids and gets another generation of young people hooked on a product that will ultimately kill them," he added.

Studies conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, found 34,000 Californians died of tobacco-related diseases in 2009, at a cost in medical expenses to the state of $18.1 billion.

Lawmakers in Hawaii have passed a similar 21-year-old smoking requirement, but Gov. Dave Ige has not yet indicated whether he will sign off on it. He has until June 29 to either sign or veto the bill.

Other states have raised their legal smoking age from the traditional 18 years of age, but none have set it at 21. The legal age is 19 in New Jersey, Alabama, Utah and Alaska.

In a related action, the California Senate also voted to approve a bill that would subject e-cigarettes to the same licensing requirements as tobacco products and ban them from the same smoke-free areas in bars, restaurants hospitals and other public and work places that currently disallow cigarettes.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Leno, also a democrat, said e-cigarettes should be treated as tobacco products because they often utilize nicotine.

He also expressed worry about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, also known as "vaping" devices, with teenagers.

"Of great concern is that the fastest growth segment of new users is among middle and high school students who are now smoking electronic cigarettes, " Leno said during the Senate debate. "They are advertised on television. They are advertised on billboards."

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