Legislature eyes raising tobacco age from 18 to 21

Republicans Vick, Hoff vote ‘no’ on bill supported by Unite! Washougal youth, councilman

Reps. Larry Hoff (left) and Brandon Vick (right), along with Sen. Ann Rivers, attend a town hall in Camas in January. Hoff and Vick, both Republicans representing the 18th Legislative District, which includes Camas and Washougal, recently voted against a bill that would raise the legal tobacco and vaping age to 21 in Washington state. Rivers has yet to vote on the Washington Senate's version of the bill. (Post-Record file photo)

A bill seeking to prevent tobacco and vaping use among youth has passed the Washington State House of Representatives and is on its way to the Washington Senate’s Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

Requested by the Washington Attorney General and Washington Department of Health and sponsored by several legislators and senators, including Rep. Monica Stonier and Sen. Annette Cleveland — both Democrats representing central and west Vancouver in the state’s 49th Legislative District — House Bill 1074 (HB 1074) and its counterpart, Senate Bill 5057 (SB 5057), would increase the minimum legal age of sale for tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21.

If approved, the bill, which supporters called “the single-most important policy to impact the health of youth” during public testimony before the Washington House, would take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

Republican Reps. Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff, who represent Camas and Washougal in the state’s 18th Legislative District, both voted against HB 1074.

Hoff said he personally doesn’t think anyone should smoke, regardless of their age, but that his personal feelings were “secondary to (his) concerns with this bill from a legislative perspective.”

The new legislator, elected by voters in the November 2018 midterm election to replace retiring Rep. Liz Pike, of Camas, said he believed HB 1074 had two major problems.

“First, it’s not going to do anything to stop individuals under 21 from buying tobacco and vape products online, from tribal shops or even across state lines for those in eastern Washington,” Hoff explained in an email sent to The Post-Record Monday evening. “Second, we live in a country where 18 year olds are allowed to join the military, vote, play the lottery and much more. I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell a battle-hardened 20 year old that I took away one of his freedoms while he was overseas fighting for the freedoms of others.”

Rep. Vick did not respond to requests for comment by this newspaper’s print deadline.

Teens say tobacco, vaping products ‘very easy to get’

Local youth who work with the Unite! Washougal Community Coalition, a group made up of a broad segment of Washougal leaders and community members that encourages teens and families to make healthier choices, said they would like to know why the local representatives voted against HB 1074.

“I’d be curious to know what their exact reasons were for voting against it,” said Lauren Bennett, 16, a sophomore at Washougal High School.

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 said.

Amara Farah, 15, also a sophomore at Washougal High, agreed with Bennett and said it is simple for most teens to get cigarettes or vaping products like the popular Juul e-cigarette, a small, sleek vaporizer filled with flavored juice that contains about 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine per “Juul pod.”

“With the age being so low, a lot of seniors are either 18 or have friends or older siblings who can buy it for them,” Farah said. “It’s very easy to get. Middle and high schoolers have easy access to (tobacco and vaping products).”

In December 2018, Unite! Washougal co-sponsored a day of “Use Your Voice” training at Washougal High’s Excelsior building. About 70 youth from across Southwest Washington attended the training, which taught the middle and high school students how to make a difference in their own communities through policy-making and laws.

The “Tobacco 21” campaign, which advocates for raising the minimum tobacco and vape purchase age to 21, was one of the main topics the students considered at the “Use Your Voice” event.

Madi Langer, a senior at Ridgefield High School in northern Clark County, spoke to the students about her advocacy work as a youth ambassador for the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Langer said vaping is common among her peers at Ridgefield High, and that she sees teens vaping at least four times a day.

In September 2018, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called vaping among youth “an epidemic” and said e-cigarette manufacturers must begin to discourage sales to teens and children.

Langer said she believes one way to discourage youth vaping is to raise the legal age for tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.

“The statistics show that about 96 percent of adult smokers started before the age of 21,” Langer said at the “Use Your Voice” event in December. “Most of my senior class peers are already 18, so they can legally purchase (vaping products) and it’s easy to find an 18-year-old friend to buy it for you if you’re younger. Raising the age to 21 would make it harder to get … and a lot of people would never start.”

Rep. Hoff said he also 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.

Supporters say bill would ‘improve kids’ health, lower health care costs’

Supporters of HB 1074 and SB 5057 who testified before state legislators included representatives from the state’s Secretary of Health office, the Washington Military Departmen and the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They say the legislation will improve the health of Washington’s youth and lower health care costs.

Supporters say the bill is aimed at preventing nicotine addiction among youth as young as 12, and that statistics show if youth do not start smoking before 21, there is a 95-percent chance they never will.

“This bill is good health care policy,” the Senate’s summary of supporters’ arguments stated. “We should value our youth. Tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease. … Most 15 to 17 year olds get products from social sources. Raising the age is the key to cutting off those social sources.”

For some local youth, including those involved with the Unite! Washougal group, preventing addiction hits close to home.

Chloe Connors, a senior at Washougal High and Unite! Washougal member, said she supports the legislation raising the minimum tobacco and vaping age to 21 because she believes it would help make it more difficult for young people to access nicotine-filled products and become addicted in the first place.

“When I was younger, my brother was doing drugs and drinking alcohol,” she said. “It affected our family and him. He’s better now, but I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the tough times my family went through.”

Paul Greenlee, a 12-year Washougal City Councilman and longtime member of Unite! Washougal, said the idea of raising the minimum age for tobacco and vaping products appealed to him immediately.

“As soon as I heard about it, it made sense to me,” Greenlee said.

The 73-year-old councilman said he understands nicotine addiction well.

“I started smoking at age 16,” Greenlee recently told The Post-Record. “I was a junior at a private military academy and smoking was a privilege given to juniors. If you get a privilege in that environment, you’re probably going to take it.”

When he found out about vaping a few years ago, Greenlee was so upset he started a campaign to get his own city council to pass an ordinance — which it did in February 2015 — to keep vaping products behind the counter instead of, as Greenlee put it, “next to the candy” at Washougal convenience stores.

“Vaping is terrifying,” Greenlee said. “At a leadership meeting we used to hold at the high school, I talked to several students about vaping in class. They told me students would sit in the back of the classroom with a vape pen, which looked like a ballpoint pen, and vape. As long as there was no cloud, the teacher would have no idea.”

Supporters of raising the tobacco age said including vaping products in the bills was a critical step toward preventing nicotine addiction in youth: “Vaping is a gateway to cigarette smoking,” the Washington Senate’s summary of SB 5057 supporters’ testimony stated. “Nationally, high school rates for vaping rose by 78 percent. Most kids are unaware that vapor products contain nicotine. Raising the age will save lives and be a cost effective investment.”

Supporters also think the bills could have a direct benefit on the United States military, stating in public testimony that “tobacco use among soldiers is about 33 percent and costs about $1.6 billion in health care. This money could be used for national security and readiness.”

Six states, including Oregon and California, and more than 400 cities, including New York City and Chicago, have already passed similar laws and raised the legal age for tobacco products to 21.

Opponents include convenience store lobbyists, vaping association

In testimony before the Washington House regarding HB 1074, opponents included representatives from the vaping industry, the Washington Retail Association and the Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA), which lobbies on behalf of the state’s independent supermarkets and convenience stores.

According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, cigarettes and other tobacco products made up the majority of sales in convenience stores in 2016 — more than food and beverages combined.

Both local legislators who voted against HB 1074, Reps. Hoff and Vick, have received campaign contributions from the WFIA. Hoff received $2,000 from the convenience store lobbying group in 2018; and Vick has received at least $5,400 from the WFIA since 2012.

Hoff said he wasn’t even aware of the amount the WFIA had given him during his campaign in 2018, but that it wouldn’t have made a difference.

“My vote isn’t going to be swayed by a contribution,” Hoff said. “That’s so far from how I developed my sense of ethics that it doesn’t even ring true. I don’t concentrate on campaign contributions. I concentrate on being a small business advocate and at looking at things that are important to the district.”

Greenlee said he believes the lobbyists aren’t necessarily worried about the drop in current 18 to 21 year olds that would have to give up buying tobacco and vaping products at convenience stores but, rather, the future smokers that won’t exist thanks to the legislation.

“It’s not the 18 and 19 year olds they’re worried about,” Greenlee said. “It’s the 30 year olds in the future. The likelihood of becoming a smoker drops very rapidly at 20 or 21 years. So, if you’re not a smoker by 30, you’re likely not going to be.”

In public testimony before the Washington House, opponents to HB 1074 said the legislation was “well intended but misguided.”

“It limits the choices people age 18 to 20 have to quit smoking,” the opponents who testified before the Washington House said. “Online access is still available. It is not clear that raising the age for access will change anything.”

The opponents, who included people from vaping stores and the vaping products lobbying group, claimed vaping products are “completely different from tobacco” and said “many people who have transitioned to vaping have also quit smoking.”

According to the National Center for Health Research (NCHR), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group focused on improving the health of U.S. adults and children, vaping is not safer than smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes.

In a report on vaping, NCHR researchers state that the “e-cigarettes,” just like traditional tobacco cigarettes, contain “a laundry list of chemicals that are proven harmful” and point out that there is new evidence that suggests vaping products may damage DNA and cause cancer. To read more about this research, visit center4research.org/vaping-safer-smoking-cigarettes-2/.

According to the Washington Department of Health, youth age 18 to 20 make up about 2.5 percent of this state’s cigarette smokers, but that twice as many 10th-graders report using vaping products over cigarettes and that 32 percent of Washington youth who vape also report smoking tobacco cigarettes.

“There are serious health and safety concerns with vapor products,” the state’s Department of Health notes. “Nicotine used in vapor products is highly addictive and can damage your heart, arteries and lungs, increasing the risk for heart attack, stroke and chronic lung disease.”

In 2016, Washington legislators passed a law making it illegal to sell vape products to anyone younger than 18.

The Unite! Washougal youth said they hope the state’s senators will take the next step and join their neighbors to the south in Oregon and California who prohibit tobacco sales to those younger than 21.

“I’ve heard the argument that if we are old enough to join the military, we’re old enough to smoke,” said ShaylaRae Tyner, a senior at Washougal High. “But we’re at the age where our brains are still developing and why would you want to ruin your brain and your health?”

Greenlee, the Washougal city councilman, agrees.

“Let’s be responsible and be parents here,” he said. “Do people have kids or grandkids? Do they want them to be smokers? This is just a good thing to do. It’s good for our state. It’s good for our community. You have to be very shortsighted to think that allowing 18 year olds to smoke is a good idea.”

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