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Washington Senate Committee Considers Raising Legal Smoking Age to 21

Washington Department of Health

Washington lawmakers have again been asked to raise the state’s legal age for buying tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. Supporters say tobacco companies are more aggressively marketing to young people and this would help to blunt the effects of that.

Washington state Health Secretary John Wiesman told lawmakers his department’s Tobacco 21 proposal is the single most important step the state can take to save lives.

“Vaping and e-cigarettes are expanding the options for kids to get addicted and because their brains are still developing, our kids are much more likely to become addicted to nicotine products than those in their mid-20s,” Wiesman said.

This is the third year Wiesman and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson have pushed to raise the legal smoking age. Though it most immediately affects older teens, Wiesman admits the target audience is younger.

“Because most 15-to-17-year-olds get their cigarettes from their friends, older siblings and co-workers, those 18, 19 and 20-year-olds who can legally purchase, it’s those 15-to-17-year-olds that Tobacco 21 would benefit the most,” he said.

Among those testifying for the bill was Lt. Col. Matthew Cooper from the Washington National Guard. He took aim at an often-used counterargument: if 18-year-olds can serve in the military and vote, why shouldn’t they be allowed to smoke? Cooper called that line of thinking outdated.

“Decades ago, this body saw the wisdom of the drinking age to age 21. That policy significantly changed and reduced drunk driving deaths and contributed to the overall public health of the state. Since then you have also determined that 18-year-olds should not gamble in casinos or carry a concealed firearm," Cooper said. "Raising the age for purchasing tobacco to 21 will improve the health and fitness of all young people and especially those who serve in the military or want to serve in the military.”

Lobbyists for retail organizations expressed doubts that raising the legal smoking age would lead to fewer young smokers. And they argue it would have other negative consequences. Mark Johnson represents the Washington Retail Association.

“Specifically we are concerned about the significant negative financial impacts this will have on retailers that offer tobacco products, especially our smaller convenience stores. A small convenience store will not only lose out on the tobacco sale, but also on other products that they’re in there to purchase. Tobacco users will simply go elsewhere to make their purchases, such as neighboring states like Idaho or over the border to Canada or a tribal tobacco shop, the Internet, or worse, the black market,” Johnson said.

While the bill has died in the legislature in recent years, it has bipartisan support, including from Senator Ann Rivers (R-LaCenter).

“I have lost my mother, my father and my eldest sister to lung cancer, all smokers at the age of 14. And I asked them, if you knew then what you knew now, and they said, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they never would have started,” Rivers said.

Rivers said she would seek to amend the bill to include advertising restrictions, to make ads aimed at young people as boring and unattractive as possible.


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