On Wednesday, the state Senate passed legislation that would raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21. The House had passed the bill with bipartisan support, 66-30, on Feb. 20. The legislation now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee, who is expected to sign the legislation into law. It will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
The legislation, which does not penalize youth possession of tobacco products, was jointly requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Washington State Department of Health. It was sponsored by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.
Washington will be the ninth state to raise the age to buy tobacco and vapor products to 21, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office. Since Ferguson first introduced the bill in 2015, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia all raised the legal age to 21, as have 450 cities and counties across the country. Illinois and New York are considering similar legislation.
“By passing this bill, the Legislature is saving thousands of Washingtonians from a lifetime of addiction and smoking-related illnesses,” Ferguson said in a statement.
People between the ages of 18 and 20 supply younger teens with tobacco and vape products, so the legislation will reduce the number of cigarettes and vape products in high schools, resulting in fewer children becoming addicted to them, Ferguson contended.
“I want to thank the large bipartisan group of elected leaders, health advocates, businesses, educators, students and parents for helping us make this happen,” Ferguson stated. “Addressing the heavy toll of tobacco-related disease, both in human lives and healthcare costs, moves us closer to being able to provide universal access to affordable healthcare for all Washingtonians.”
Kuderer warned against the rise of vaping use among teens, saying in a statement that, “The movement to reduce consumption of tobacco among Americans was one of the most costly and successful public health efforts in our history, but the rise of vaping products targeting young people undermines the progress we had fought to achieve for generations. We all know someone who has struggled with the serious health consequences of using tobacco products. I’m proud that today we have taken a stand together to interrupt the cycle of addiction before it even begins.”
Harris praised the legislation, saying it would also protect children under 18.
“There is no redeeming value in smoking,” he said in a statement. “There’s not one good thing a cigarette can do for youth. Keeping cigarettes out of high schools will have a life-long positive impact on not just those who are 18 to 21, but also those who are even younger.”
Lisa Sauve, owner of MAXX Vape in Puyallup, criticized the legislation. She said it will cost her business revenue, adding that the hit will be even harder if the state eventually imposes a tax on vape products. She also questioned the need for raising the legal age to purchase vape products.
“As an industry, we are all about keeping products out of the hands of our youth,” she wrote in a statement. “The vape industry is very good about carding and as a matter of fact, we don’t even allow anyone under the age of 18 into our vape shops.”
Sauve said she doesn’t think raising the legal age will keep tobacco or vape products out of the hands of underage kids, arguing that the products will be available on tribal lands where the age restrictions don’t apply, or online or from stores that don’t ask customers for identification.
“At the end of the day, vape shops are being penalized and lumped in with the offenders,” she wrote.
Sauve also drew a distinction between tobacco and vape products, arguing that vaping can act as a lifesaving alternative to tobacco products that will no longer be legally available to smokers aged 18-20.
The American Lung Association praised the legislation, calling it “an important, life-saving step forward to protect the health of our youth and our state.”
“Nearly 95 percent of smokers try their first cigarette before age 21, and many tobacco users transition from experimenting to regular tobacco use between the ages of 18 and 21,” Carrie Nyssen, senior director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Washington said in a statement. “This is a critical time to protect our youth and young adults from the dangers of tobacco use and nicotine addiction.”
A coalition of nearly 80 organizations, businesses, and municipalities supported the legislation, including the American Heart Association, March of Dimes, the YMCA, the Washington State PTA, and the Washington State Board of Health.
Needham, Massachusetts, was the first city in the country to raise the smoking age and saw a more than 50 percent reduction in tobacco use among high school students in the years following passage of the law, according to the attorney general’s press release. Without raising the smoking age to 21, tobacco use would have shortened the lives of 104,000 kids currently living in Washington today, the release states.
It goes on to state that more than $2.8 billion in annual healthcare costs are directly attributable to tobacco use in the state, and the average Washington household currently pays $789 in taxes each year due to smoking-related healthcare, even if nobody in the household smokes.