State lawmakers consider a bill to raise the legal tobacco age

Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee members, from left, state Sens. Karen Keiser, Patty Kuderer, Annette Cleveland and Ann Rivers. (Taylor McAvoy/WNPA Olympia News Bureau)

Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee members, from left, state Sens. Karen Keiser, Patty Kuderer, Annette Cleveland and Ann Rivers. (Taylor McAvoy/WNPA Olympia News Bureau)

By Taylor McAvoy

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are considering a bill that could raise the legal age to purchase any nicotine product from 18 to 21 years old.

Sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Redmond, SB 6048 was heard Monday by request of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“No bill in Olympia this session will save more lives than increasing the legal smoking age to 21,” Ferguson said.

He was careful to mention that this bill would not criminalize youth who already possess tobacco or vape products; it would only disallow them from buying more. He also said five states have passed similar legislation.

Secretary of Health John Wiesman said just two years can make a significant difference, citing a study from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies analyzing states with legal tobacco ages at 18, 19 and 21 years old.

The study demonstrated that states that raised the legal tobacco age from 18 to 21 were more effective at reducing the rates of teen smokers than states that raised the legal age to just 19.

This, he said, is because most teens who are younger than 18 years old buy tobacco from their older friends and family. Raising the legal age would increase the gap between the age group that is most at risk — 15- to 17 year-olds — according to the study.

Wiesman thinks this bill is crucial to public health because teen brains are still developing. Those who start smoking at 15 to 17 years old will find it much harder to quit as adults.

Lt. Colonel Matthew Cooper of the Washington National Guard said that raising the legal smoking age is critical to the National Guard.

He said more than 33 percent of current members smoke, which makes them less fit and less combat ready.

Mark Johnson, speaking for the Washington Retail Association, said small convenience stores will take a substantial hit because they lose customers for tobacco and other services. He said people will simply go elsewhere.

Larry Stewart, executive director of the Washington Association of Neighborhood Stores, supports prevention of underage tobacco use, but does not support raising the legal age to 21. He called for a halt to the bill until tribal smoke shops, casinos and border states increase their legal age to 21.

Stewart said that 18 is the age of adulthood.

“What does it mean from a policy perspective to treat a person who is required to pay taxes, allowed to vote, and serve in the military, as not capable of making a full range of choices traditionally associated with adulthood,” Stewart said.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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