OLYMPIA – People under 21 could no longer purchase tobacco or vapor products in Washington under legislation heard Thursday by the Senate Labor and Commerce committee.
The bill would make the selling of such products to anyone under 21 a gross misdemeanor.
Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said the bill could help prevent young people from an early death. “This is about saving lives,” he said.
The bill is intended to curb nicotine addiction by keeping it out of the hands of young people who are more likely to get hooked.
Minors who are 15 to 17 years old primarily access tobacco and vaping products from older friends and classmates, said Yasmin Trudeau with the Office of the Attorney General.
She also said that the bill would not penalize 18- to 20-year-olds for possession of tobacco or vaping products, but focus on those selling to them.
The bill’s restrictions would not apply to military installations or tribal reservations which operate outside of state jurisdiction.
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the bill would help decrease premature deaths.
“Raising the minimum legal age for the sale of tobacco and vaping products to 21 is the single most important policy we could adopt to protect our kids,” he said.
Lindsay Hovind, who spoke on behalf of the American Heart Association and several other groups, said the health impact for teens of raising the age for tobacco and vaping product are significant.
She referenced a report by the Institute of Medicine that found a 25 percent decrease in initiation rates for tobacco products when the legal age was raised to 21.
“This would be a tremendous opportunity to dramatically reduce smoking initiation and prevent future generations from a lifetime of suffering,” Hovind said.
Some business owners raised concerns about how the bill would affect their stores, and said they were worried the ban would drive consumers who also purchase non-tobacco and nicotine products across state borders, or to tribal reservations that would be unaffected by the legislation.
“Our small convenience store and gas station owners are struggling to survive,” said Calvin Yi with the Korean American Grocers Association. “What we want is fairness of competition.”
Several owners of vaping stores said many people turn to vaping as an alternative to tobacco, or to quit altogether. They also said the bill would unfairly punish small businesses.
Julie Anderson with eCig n’Vape said she has helped over 2,000 customers to transition away from tobacco.
“We are just as passionate about people not smoking as most of you all here,” she said.
But not all business owners were opposed to the bill. Business owner David Hall from Edmonds said that as a 25-year business owner, the ban on selling tobacco to under 21-year-olds would equate to only a small reduction in revenue.
“I ran the numbers, and discovered that for a convenience store, this bill is a proverbial ‘nothingburger,’ ” he said. “If your business model depends on selling an addictive substance to teenagers which will eventually kill many of them, to make an extra four bucks a day, I think you need a different business model, and a bit more humanity.”
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