Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is pressing for legislation that would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21.
“Let’s be blunt,” Ferguson said at a press conference Wednesday. “Cigarettes are too easy to get if you are a teenager. This legislation will save lives.”
Washington Secretary of Health John Weisman said there is “no single policy that the Legislature could adopt this session that would do more to protect the health of our kids.”
Sarah Stewart, a senior at Mercer Island High School, said at the press conference that she worries about the health of her younger classmates.
“On my 18th birthday I was messaged by lower classmen that asked me how much it would cost to go pick up a vape pen for them,” Stewart said. “People will always do it right? The difference is, if you raise the legal age to 21 you are decreasing youth access.”
She said that cigarettes are generally “not as cool” as vaping because people know the negative health impacts. “But cigarettes are easier and cheaper to get,” she said.
Rep. Tina Orwall, D–Des Moines, is sponsoring the House bill. She said both her parents died from tobacco-related diseases. Meanwhile, her teenage son sees tobacco use every day because “these hookah pens are all over the school,” she said.
Immediately following the press conference, the House Health Care and Wellness Committee held a public hearing on the House bill. Although the majority of those who testified were in support of the legislation, several retail store representatives came out against the proposal.
Joanie Deutsch of the Washington Retail Association said it would hurt small convenience stores.
“A change of this nature will drive these products to the black market, across state boarders, to tribal operations and to federal properties like Joint Base Lewis McCord,” she said.
Other opponents argue that the smoking age is best dealt with at the federal level, especially in conjunction with tribes.
Michelle Reeves of the Washington Food Industry Association said 18-year-olds are legal adults who often have families and mortgages of their own. They may pick up tobacco while grocery shopping and to withhold certain conveniences from them is wrong, she said.
At the age of 18, you can serve in the military, vote and be charged with a felony, said Daniel Kim of the Korean American Grocers Association of Washington.
“These are adults not kids. The bill is well intended but will only hurt the state and small retailers,” Kim said.
When the attorney general was asked if military members serving their country should be allowed to smoke, Ferguson said that the proposed age of 21 is consistent with the marijuana and drinking age. He said that it would not affect military bases where the federal age to buy tobacco is 18.
Supporters also pointed to a recent survey to bolster their argument. A survey of 500 registered voters taken in December by pollster Stuart Elway shows that 65 percent of voters agree with raising the smoking age to 21, while 35 percent oppose the idea.