By Emma Epperly
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
The legal age to purchase tobacco and vape products is about to rise from 18 to 21 under a bill headed to the governor’s desk after a 33-21 vote by the Washington State Senate on Wednesday.
The bill states its focus on “public health, safety and welfare by reducing youth access to addictive and harmful products.” Washington would be the ninth state to raise the minimum age for all tobacco products, and others are considering making the change, according to the American Lung Association.
The bill would not make it illegal for those under 21 to possess tobacco products.
Tobacco product use is increasing among young people in the United States with more than 1 in 4 high school students using tobacco products in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
E-cigarettes make up 20.8 percent of tobacco products used among high schoolers, according to the CDC. The CDC webpage on youth tobacco use mentions JUUL devices, the most commonly sold e-cigarette nationwide.
JUULs are small USB-shaped devices that have refillable pods. Each pod can contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. JUUL’s website and packaging indicate that their product is “the alternative for adult smokers.”
The company has acknowledged its role in the rise of e-cigarette use and has a youth prevention section on its website along with guidelines for marketing and social media. Among these guidelines are statements like, “JUUL is not appropriate or intended for youth” and, “We do not feature images or situations intended for a youth audience.”
For the 4.9 million youth who use tobacco products, Washington’s purchase age change may not stop them from buying tobacco products, said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R- Ferndale.
“So it’s not illegal for an 18-year-old to have cigarettes, it’s simply illegal for them to purchase cigarettes, and it’s not illegal for them to purchase them on a tribal reservation shop. So that’s really my main concern on the equity and fairness issue,” Ericksen said.
Since Native American Tribes are sovereign nations, federally recognized tribes and their lands fall under federal law. Federally the minimum age to purchase tobacco is 18, making it legal on tribal lands in Washington for those 18 to 20 to purchase tobacco products.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, cited both personal experiences and the dramatic reduction in odds that individuals will pick up the habit of smoking after the age of 21 as the reasons she strongly supports the bill.
“For me it goes back to when I was a young teenage girl, and my grandfather was dying from emphysema,” Kuderer said. “If you have ever watched someone who is struggling to breathe, I can tell you that I will never forget the sound that he made or the look in his eyes. And if you could see that too… you would know you would never want anyone to suffer from a smoking-related illness.”
Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, was unsupportive of the “equation” of vaping to other tobacco products, saying vaping is less dangerous than cigarettes and a good alternative to smoking and that “by not categorizing vaper as the boogie man,” lives lost to smoking cigarettes could be saved.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, proposed an amendment to allow for veterans and active duty military to buy tobacco products under the age of 21. The Washington Military Department submitted a letter to the Senate Ways and Means Committee saying, “Raising the age for purchasing tobacco products is good for the health of our service members as well as the readiness of our military.” The amendment was not adopted.
House Bill 1074 was brought forward by request of Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and the Department of Health. The bill was largely bipartisan with Rep. Paul Harris, R- Vancouver, the prime sponsor. It passed out of the House with 66 votes in favor and 30 opposed. The bill will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
The bill heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, where he is expected to sign it into law. Inslee tweeted his support Wednesday afternoon saying, “Tobacco 21 is the most preventative, cost-effective policy we can adopt to protect the health of our youth.”