OLYMPIA – Young adults would be barred from cigarettes under a proposal unveiled Wednesday by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Under Ferguson’s plan, Washington would become the first state in the country to raise its smoking age from 18 to 21; Utah and Colorado tried but failed last year. So far, only a handful of cities and counties, including New York City, have done it. In Alabama, Alaska, Utah and New Jersey, it’s 19.
Ferguson said the most important result would be fewer young adults who become addicted to nicotine.
“We must do more to protect our youth from tobacco’s grip, and this bill is an important step toward keeping nicotine out of the hands of kids and young adults,” he said.
The bill warns that more than 90 percent of smokers began as teenagers, citing a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. The years between ages 18 and 21 are a “critical period” in which more than a quarter of tobacco users move from experimentation to daily use, the bill says.
After Needham, Massachusetts, raised its purchasing age to 21 in 2005, the high school smoking rate dropped by more than half by 2012, Ferguson said. The bill projects Washington would see similar results in the same amount of time.
The law would apply to all tobacco products, vaporizers and e-cigarettes. Possession would be illegal for people younger than 21, even if they buy tobacco on a military base or tribal land. Native American tribes would enforce their own age restrictions by working with local law enforcement.
The Department of Revenue predicted a $20 million loss in tax revenue through 2017, but Ferguson said the state would be partially compensated if the Legislature passes Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed tobacco tax hikes.
Doug Topp, the owner of Tobacco World at The Flour Mill in Spokane, said raising the purchasing age would certainly harm his business, estimating that nearly a quarter of his customers are younger than 21.
“I think it’s a ridiculous law,” Topp said. “I think if a person can be drafted and go to war, they’re old enough to smoke.”
Federal statistics suggest the smoking rate among young Americans is dropping. The portion of smokers among 18- to 24-year-olds shrunk significantly from 24.4 percent in 2005 to 17.3 percent in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Tobacco sales tend to be declining overall,” said Tony Shaffer, manager of the Rosauers grocery store at 907 W. 14th Ave. “I just don’t see a lot of people smoking these days.”
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