OLYMPIA – Washington stores wouldn’t be able to sell tobacco or vapor products to people younger than 21 under a bill described Tuesday as a vital piece of health legislation.
“It’s hard to imagine another bill that will come before this committee or this Legislature this year that has the potential to save more lives than this piece of legislation,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson told the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.
Although intended to reduce youth smoking, the bill would not make it illegal for people 18 to 20 years old to smoke or vape. It would prevent vendors from selling to them.
Ferguson and others say the change would significantly reduce overall nicotine consumption. A report from the American Journal of Public Health says 90 percent of addicted smokers began smoking before age 21.
An emotional Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, highlighted the bill’s importance in his speech at the House opening ceremony Monday.
“I have served as a pallbearer for too many of my relatives in a cemetery in Roslyn, their lives cut short by smoking,” Chopp said.
In 2016, 15 percent of Washington 10th-graders used tobacco or vapor products, according to Washington’s Healthy Use Survey. Nicotine use is expected to increase significantly with the popularization of JUUL and other vapor products, State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said.
Altria, which owns tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA, has 35 percent stake in JUUL, which has a 73 percent share of the vapor product market.
“If it wasn’t clear before , I hope it is very clear now that JUUL is the tobacco industry,” said Mary McHale, government relations director for the American Cancer Society.
Only 30 percent of students in the 2016 survey regarded vaping as harmful. Students who used nicotine products reported higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts, and were more likely to use alcohol or marijuana, the survey said.
Opponents of the bill included vapor product retailers and convenience store owners, who suggested action should be taken at the federal level. They also said they would lose business because costumers would purchase from other states or reservations.
Two percent of tobacco purchases are made by those younger than 21, according to the Institute of Medicine report.
Edmonds convenience store owner David Hall, who supports the bill, called his profits on nicotine to those younger than 21 a “proverbial nothing burger” and estimated he would only lose $3 a day.
Six states, including Oregon, and 430 cities or counties in the U.S. have raised the minimum age to purchase nicotine products to 21.
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