Youth, health winners in ‘Tobacco 21’ passage

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law this month that will raise the legal age for buying tobacco products, including vaping products and cigarettes, from 18 to 21.

Sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, the “Tobacco 21” legislation had widespread support from youth and health advocacy groups, who said the age change would help save lives by preventing youth from forming addictive habits in their teen years.

The new law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

At a signing ceremony held last week at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Inslee had this to say about the new law:

“On behalf of all the children in the state of Washington, I am signing House Bill 1074, and we are going to save thousands of lives.”

The Washington Office of the Attorney General later said nearly 70 organizations, businesses and municipalities backed the Tobacco 21 legislation.

Locally, the age bump for tobacco products earned support from members of Unite! Washougal, including many youth at Washougal High School and Washougal City Councilman Paul Greenlee. Sen. Ann Rivers also voted yes on the legislation, which passed the senate 33-12 with four absent. As noted in a Post-Record article published Feb. 28, our two state representatives, Reps. Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff, voted against the legislation when it came through the House.

“I’d be curious to know what their exact reasons were for voting against it,” Lauren Bennett, 16, a sophomore at Washougal High School, told The Post-Record in February.

An advocate for raising the legal age for tobacco and vape products to 21, Bennett said she has heard arguments against the bill — including the fact that youth could still buy cigarettes and vaping products online and at tribal-owned shops — but felt those arguments weren’t taking into account the real-life way most teens, including those younger than 18, get their hands on tobacco and vaping products.

“People are getting it from their older siblings and friends, who get it from stores,” Bennett told The Post-Record.

According to statistics from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly all adult smokers became addicted to nicotine, found in cigarettes and vaping products, before they turned 21. Studies have also shown adults 21 and older are less likely than youth to start smoking if they haven’t by age 21. In Washington, nearly 30 percent of all cancer deaths are attributed to tobacco use.

We believe the youth, politicians and corporations who supported the Tobacco 21 legislation deserve the public’s thanks. Most of those opposing the legislation could not speak to health benefits but only to vague reasons about “buying it at tribal reservations” and not wanting to tell military members they couldn’t have a cigarette, despite the fact that we already limit alcohol consumption to military members age 21 and older — and the fact that the Tobacco 21 legislation had military supporters.

Rep. Vick never responded to requests for comment regarding his “nay” vote on the legislation, but Rep. Hoff had a lengthy discussion with The Post-Record and said he feels strongly that it is important to prevent youth from ever smoking or vaping, but didn’t think HB 1074 was the vehicle for making that happen.

“I’m on their side as far as not smoking,” Hoff said of the youth who have come out in support of raising the minimum age for buying tobacco and vaping products.

The representative said he would have preferred to see a bill that didn’t raise the age for tobacco purchases, but did “have more teeth” for cracking down on older teens and adults who supply legally purchased tobacco and vaping products to younger high school and middle school students.

“I’d like to see greater ability for enforcement and for preventing these actions,” Hoff said.

The youth we spoke to from Unite! Washougal believed the Tobacco 21 legislation would do just that, however. They said most of the “adults” who are supplying teens with tobacco products are likely seniors in high school who have turned 18 and slightly older 18- and 19-year-old siblings and friends. Raising the age to 21, they told us, would likely stem that “pipeline,” as many teens in high school don’t tend to socialize with folks age 21 and older while they’re still in high school and younger than 18.

While we’re excited to see the legislation pass in Washington — and catch on in many other states, including Oregon — we do wish our local state representatives, who both took campaign contributions from one of the biggest opponents to the legislation (the lobby group representing convenience stores, which often rely on tobacco product sales to boost their revenue), would have listened to the youth and to the health advocacy groups, as well as members of their own Republican Party, who helped bring this legislation to fruition before making their own assumptions about the bill and voting against it.