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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House votes to raise smoking age to 21

OLYMPIA – Lawmakers who support raising the age for smoking and vaping nicotine-laced products overcame objections of those who said people who are old enough to vote and join the military are old enough to make their own decisions.

In a 66-30 vote, they passed and sent to the Senate a bill bumping the legal age from 18 to 21.

“Nicotine is the most addictive substance we have. It has no redeeming value,” Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said. Studies show that 95 percent of people who don’t smoke by age 21, never start, he added.

Raising the age for nicotine products has been a perennial quest in the Legislature backed by the state Department of Health, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and anti-smoking advocates. The House passed similar legislation near the end of the 2018 session, but the Senate didn’t vote on it before the Legislature adjourned.

This year, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, listed raising the smoking age as one of his priorities in his speech on opening day, saying he has served as a pallbearer too many times for relatives whose lives were cut short by smoking. To underscore the point Wednesday, he presided over the debate and vote, a task he leaves to others on most issues.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said he wasn’t supporting smoking.

“At what age are we going to allow people to make choices?” he asked. “Is it a good choice? No.”

He offered an amendment to raise the age to 19 for those seeking to protect students, arguing that people who are 18 might be in high school, but those who are 19 wouldn’t be.

But Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, countered that high school students often have “peers” who are 19, and “21 is more of a stretch.”

The amendment failed.

Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, objected to the lack of punishment in the bill for teens who do smoke. “The laws we seek to pass should have some teeth.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, described the bill as “the creeping nanny state,” with legislators telling adults what they can and can’t do. If 18-year-old brains aren’t able to make good choices on smoking, as some supporters of the higher age limit contend, “why are they voting?” he asked.

But a string of supporters said the new age limit would save lives and money in the long term, by reducing medical problems from smoking or vaping and the cost of treating them.