Washington Legislature votes to raise smoking age to 21

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A proposal to raise the smoking and vaping age to 21 in Washington has passed the Legislature, putting the state on the precipice of becoming the ninth state to make such a change.

Lawmakers in the state Senate approved the measure 33-12 on Wednesday with supporters saying it would reduce youth smoking while critics decried it as symptomatic of an encroaching nanny state.

Having previously passed the House, the measure now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has said he supports the bill and is expected to sign it.

The bill would raise the legal age for buying tobacco, e-cigarettes and other vaping products, whether they include nicotine or not, and would penalize anyone selling to underage buyers.

California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and Oregon have already increased the smoking age, as has Guam, according to the American Lung Association and the Centers for Disease Control.

Similar legislation has also passed the Illinois Legislature but has not been signed into law.

During debate before the Washington vote, Democratic Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue described her personal connection to the issue.

“For me it goes back to when I was a young teenage girl and my grandfather was dying from emphysema,” Kuderer said.

She and other supporters said forbidding minors from using tobacco and other products had lowered smoking rates and death rates from lung cancer and related diseases. They say raising the age limit to 21 would lead to an even greater decrease.

Supporters have also argued the bill would save the state money by reducing the number of patients seeking expensive care for smoking-related illness.

Republican state senators criticized the approach as over-protective. They pointed out that people 18 and over can make life-altering decisions involving marriage, military enlistment and voting.

“Either you’re an adult at 18 or you’re not,” said Sen. Phil Fortunato, an Auburn Republican. “This is a personal freedom issue.”

Other conservatives expressed concern about whether the bill would affect federally regulated Native American reservations and might create a black market in areas around them.

CDC data show youth smoking has been trending downward since at least 2011, but vaping has seen a dramatic increase.

In 2011, less than one in 50 high schoolers said they had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. By 2018 the number had jumped to one in five.

Data on whether the additional three years called for in the Washington state bill would make the kind of difference claimed by supporters was less conclusive.

Figures from the CDC indicate about 90 percent of smokers start before age 18.

Noe Baker, of the American Cancer Society, said the group figures that number only jumps to about 95 percent by 21. But, Baker said, the years between 18 and 21 are formative, and can be a period when experimental smokers transition into habitual use.

Enforcement mechanisms on smoking age limits have also been a subject of contention nationally.

While the Washington state bill targets sellers of tobacco and vape products, other states and municipalities have passed rules targeting buyers.

Some Washington legislators questioned why the state bill didn’t contain similar provisions.

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Follow Tom James on Twitter at @tomjames206

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