PORT ANGELES — Should the legal age for tobacco sales be raised from 18 to 21?
The Clallam County Board of Health has passed a resolution asking the state Legislature to do just that.
Board members voted Tuesday to call on the Legislature to raise the minimum sales age for tobacco and nicotine vapor products to 21.
“In my mind, it’s a total no-brainer,” said Dr. Christopher Frank, Clallam County health officer, before the unanimous vote.
“It’s a very small thing that we can do, but it is helpful to have some support from rural areas.”
The Jefferson County Board of Health has not considered such action, board member Jill Buhler said Friday.
Have not heard
“We haven’t heard anything about it,” said Buhler, who also serves as a Jefferson Healthcare hospital commissioner.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has spearheaded a push to raise the minimum sales age for tobacco products in an effort to reduce teen smoking, reduce the health care costs of smoking and save lives.
Companion bills that would have raised the sales age to 21 stalled in state House and Senate committees during the last legislative session in March.
State Reps. Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege, both Sequim Democrats, were among 25 co-sponsors of House Bill 2313 to raise the tobacco sales age.
Frank predicted that the legislation would garner bipartisan support during the next legislative session, which begins in January.
“It probably should have passed last year,” Frank said in a Friday interview.
If passed and signed by the governor, Washington would become the third state after Hawaii and California to raise the minimum tobacco sales age.
“I don’t see any reason not to support it,” Frank said.
Tharinger said he supported raising the tobacco sales age because of data that shows how minors often get cigarettes from 18- and 19-year-olds.
“By raising the age, it makes it harder for minors to access tobacco,” Tharinger said Friday.
Nearly 90 percent of smokers started by the time they were 18, and tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in Clallam County and the state, health officials said.
“Folks obviously have the right to smoke if they want,” Tharinger said, “but if you look at the health data, part of the success in improving lifespans is that people have stopped smoking.”
While smoking rates have been decreasing nationwide, the decline has been slower in Clallam County, particularly among pregnant women and those who didn’t finish high school, Frank said.
John Alger of Sequim, a GOP-independent who is running against Tharinger in the general election, questioned whether raising the minimum sales age would be an effective deterrent to tobacco use.
“I’m on the side that we need to have some consistency,” said Alger, who quit smoking 23 years ago.
“If you’re mature enough to vote, if you’re mature enough to own a rifle, if you’re mature enough to go into the military, then you’re mature enough to make a decision on whether to smoke or not.”
Vaping or electronic cigarette use continues to rise among all age groups, Frank said.
Clallam County has a “significant tobacco burden,” particularly among those without a high school diploma or who live in poverty, Frank said.
“It’s really an equity issue in our community,” he added.
The smoking rate is about 38 percent for those earning less than $25,000 per year, and 10 percent to 15 percent for those earning more than $75,000 annually, Frank said.
“So essentially, you’re taking people who can least afford it, often have the least amount of education and you’re imposing a cost on them because of nicotine addiction and all the other costs that come with poor health outcomes,” Frank said.
“So it really is like a triple whammy. It hits rural counties the hardest because of that.”
Statewide polling has shown that raising the age for tobacco sales has received broad support, Frank said.
Two-thirds of Washingtonians who responded to a poll last December said they would support raising the sales age to 21, Frank said.
Buhler said she would need to study the pros and cons of the issue before taking a position on raising the tobacco sales age.
Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, was not immediately available for comment Friday.
Dr. Jeanette Stehr-Green, who chairs the Clallam County Board of Health, said the board-approved resolution “sends a signal to the state Department of Health that we’re serious about this.”
Certain states allow local municipalities to set the minimum age for tobacco sales.
Raising the minimum age reduced the high school smoking rate in Needham, Mass., the first jurisdiction to try it, by more than 50 percent, Ferguson wrote in an April 4 guest column in The Seattle Times.
“The concern is usually its effect on business, but the short-term effect on businesses have been much less than people feared,” Frank said of the municipalities that have raised the tobacco sales age.
State voters legalized recreational marijuana for those 21 and older in 2012.
“We know that raising the price of tobacco products, limiting sales to young people and vigorously enforcing and expanding tobacco-free space dramatically improves health outcomes,” Frank said in a news release.
“This is legislation that will save lives.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].