OLYMPIA – Washington on Friday became the ninth state to raise its smoking age, following a national trend that has seen at least half a dozen Legislatures approve similar proposals in recent months.
Along with restricting traditional cigarettes, the new law raises the legal age for buying e-cigarettes and other vaping products, whether they include nicotine or not, and sets a penalty for selling to underage buyers.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill at a ceremony in Seattle, making Washington the latest of three states to have seen age-raise bills signed into law so far this year alone, after Virginia and Utah, and joining a growing group of states to have made the change in recent years.
In remarks before the signing, the bill’s sponsor called it an effort to attack a last avenue for cigarettes into schools – via 18-year-old students – and thus shrink the exposure of younger students.
“I think it’ll make a significant difference for youth,” said Vancouver Republican Rep. Paul Harris. “We have a lot of 18-year-olds that are still in in high schools.”
But while the bill had bipartisan support in the state Legislature – it drew Republican votes along with Harris’ as well as broad support from Democrats – critics called it attack on personal freedoms.
During debate over the measure on the Senate, Republican Sen. Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, pointed out that 18-year-olds can make major life decisions like joining the military, and called it hypocritical to stop them from smoking if they wanted.
“The nanny state is alive and well, and this is another example,” said Padden.
The signing of the Washington bill follows a nationwide trend.
After Hawai’i became the first state to raise its smoking age to 21 with a law that took effect in 2016, others followed suit: By the end of 2018, five more states had raised the limit.
The pace has picked up in 2019, when Legislatures in at least six states including Washington have approved age raising bills, although three of those have not yet been signed into law.
Altogether, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and Oregon raised their smoking age ahead of Washington, along with Guam and the District of Columbia.
Similar bills have also passed in Illinois, Maryland, and New York, put have not yet been signed into law.
The Washington bill inspired significant debate, but also bipartisan support.
Sen. Ann Rivers, a La Center Republican, said that even though she was skeptical of how effective the bill would be, she was supporting it because she had seen the effects of cancer firsthand.
“I’m conflicted because I do see merits in both sides,” Rivers said Thursday. Rivers said she was concerned the bill would create a blackmarket especially around Native American reservations, where she said cigarette sales would still follow the federal age limit of 18.
But, Rivers said, the memory of caring for her parents as they both succumbed to smoking-related illness ultimately motivated her vote.
“It’s hard to disregard their final words to me, which was that they wished they had never started,” Rivers said. “I Don’t think I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t try to do something.”
Rivers also said she was skeptical of the argument for personal freedoms, noting alcohol is also restricted until 21.
The size of the effect the bill will ultimately have is an open question.
While the age-increase directly targets 18- to 20-year-olds, 87 percent of smokers start before age 18, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control.
Mary McHale, head of government relations in Washington for the American Cancer Society, acknowledged that most people start before age 18, but said the law would also have an indirect effect.
“This bill isn’t really about those 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds,” McHale said. “We know that 18-year-old classmates are the number-one source of these products for other students.”
Hawaii, the first state to raise its age limit, has not so far seen a large drop in overall smoking rates, according to CDC data.