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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Health benefits in raising smoking age to 21 would outweigh revenue loss

The push to move the cigarette-buying age to 21 in Washington state has run into a short-term budgeting conundrum: When sales drop, so will sales-tax collections.

Yes, when a state relies too much on “sin taxes” for general revenue, you have budget writers quietly rooting for bad habits to linger.

If the state were to raise the smoking age, it would lose an estimated $10.4 million for the current supplemental budget and $21.9 million in the 2017-19 biennium, according to an Everett Herald article. Because of this, a bill to raise the smoking age – HB 2313 – is stalled in the House Committee on Appropriations.

Losing that smoking revenue is difficult, says Rep. Hans Dunshee, the committee chairman, because lawmakers have had to increase spending on wildfire fighting and the state’s psychiatric hospitals as they assemble the supplemental budget.

But let’s think about how legislators will react to the latest revenue projections released on Wednesday. The forecast council says the current two-year budget, which ends in the middle of 2017, will come up about $78 million short of the previous projection.

Will legislators respond by lowering the smoking age from, say, 18 to 16. Will the drinking age be dropped from 21 to 19? Will the legal age to buy marijuana be lowered from 21?

Of course not, even though each of those moves would raise more revenue. Any attempt to do so would run into arguments on the long-term consequences. It shouldn’t be any different when considering the merits of raising the legal age for buying cigarettes.

The long-term benefits are undeniable. About 249,000 fewer Americans would die prematurely if the legal age were raised to 21, according to an Institutes of Medicine report. The study found that 90 percent of adult smokers began before they were 19 years old.

Smoking-related illnesses cost the average Washington household $628 a year in health care expenses, according to a Department of Health report.

The state should push the legal age out of reach of high school seniors and new graduates, as it does for alcohol and marijuana. It would reduce the number of young people who pick up those habits in their formative years. Tobacco company documents show that hooking young people is critical to gaining a customer for life.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who chairs the Commerce and Labor Committee, argues that if we send people off to war at age 18, they ought to be able to buy cigarettes.

And pot and booze, too? Well, no … and we’re right back to the long-term merits of setting the legal age at 21 for all three.

At some point the state is going to have to absorb the short-term revenue dip to reap the long-term gains. The sooner the better.

And if this were to kick off a tax reform debate, we’d drink to that.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”

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