The Washington Legislature should raise the age for smoking to 21.
The limit now is 18, which is not old enough to keep cigarettes and other tobacco products out of the reach of high school seniors and new graduates. From them, the availability of cigarettes filters down to younger students, hooking them on an addictive substance that could kill them, as it does to a half million Americans – 8,300 in Washington – who die prematurely each year from causes related to smoking.
Banning tobacco sales to those 21 and younger can reduce high school student smoking by more than one-half, as it did in the first city to raise the age: Needham, Massachusetts. Hawaii became the first state to do so last year.
A 2015 Healthy Youth Survey found that 40,000 Washington children ranging from 11 to 17 years old smoked within the last 30 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco use will kill one of 13 smokers aged 13 to 17 prematurely.
An Institute of Medicine report estimates 249,000 fewer Americans will suffer premature deaths if the smoking age is raised to 21.
And it’s not just about health, although that alone should carry the argument.
According to a new study by WalletHub, an online social and financial website, wresting tobacco from smokers could also save them more than $1 million in direct and indirect costs over their lifetimes.
The costs to a Washington resident who starts smoking one pack per day at age 18 and continues puffing at that rate for 51 years could reach to almost $2 million. In Idaho, the cost could be more than $1.3 million, with Washington’s much higher cigarette tax accounting for much of the difference.
Incredible, but the methodology used to make that calculation is sound. Start with the cost of the cigarettes, and estimate what that money would have earned if invested using the S&P 500 as a benchmark.
Add health care expenditures, higher insurance rates, lost time at work and, cough, real money.
And why 51 years? Smokers die at the average age of 69.
There are two bills in the Legislature, HB 2313 and SB 6157, that would raise the age for smokers to 21. Last year, Senate action was blocked by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who refused to have the Commerce and Labor Committee that he chairs give the bill a hearing.
This year, he said he will hear the bill, but continues to question why those old enough to serve in the military should be denied cigarettes. That argument made sense when the voting age was lowered, but it did not block a rise in the age for drinking alcohol, nor should it for smoking.
If, as Baumgartner says, raising the smoking age should be done by initiative, a new poll of 500 voters makes their sentiments pretty clear.
The Stuart Elway poll found 65 percent support raising the smoking age. There was little difference between Republicans and Democrats, or those living west or east of the Cascade Mountains.
One way or another, this should get done. Teenagers can’t smoke ’em if they don’t got ’em.