State AG proposes legislation changing legal age for tobacco to 21

By Brandon Macz
Bellevue Reporter writer

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson predicts it will take three years to pass legislation in Olympia to change the legal age for tobacco use from 18 to 21, his goal being to make the state the first in the country to do so.

Ferguson announced his agency-request legislation during a news conference in Olympia Wednesday in the form of Senate Bill 5494 and House Bill 1458. The bills are sponsored by Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, respectively.

The attorney general said his goal is to fight back against “Big Tobacco” and its targeting of 18-21 year olds, as well as ending the pipeline for underage teens to buy cigarettes, typically from those over 18 but under 21. The legislation includes electronic cigarette products, vaporizing now one of the most popular smoking methods for teenagers.

Ferguson likened his mission to that of former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s fight with tobacco companies over their marketing of cigarettes to children when she was attorney general in 1998. That resulted in a multistate agreement that provided Washington with major antismoking campaign funding.

“This bill is about saving our kids from a lifetime of addiction,” said Washington Health Secretary John Wiesman, who endorsed Ferguson’s legislation during Wednesday’s news conference.

Wiesman said smoking-related illnesses account for $2.81 billion in health care costs in Washington annually. The attorney general’s office reports smoking kills 8,300 Washingtonians annually.

The two lawmakers sponsoring Ferguson’s legislation took turns sharing their personal experiences with family members who smoked, Orwall losing her parents to heart disease and cancer.

“I cannot tell you how many times they tried to quit,” she said.

“We can almost balance our budget, the money we spend on healthcare in this state,” Miloscia said of tobacco’s $2.8 billion cost to healthcare in Washington.

The economic impact of raising the legal age for tobacco and vapor products to 21 is currently estimated to be a $20 million annual loss in revenue from taxes on cigarettes.

The legislation would not apply to military bases like Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where the legal age to buy and consume tobacco products would remain 18.

Ferguson said his legislation does not include ramping up enforcement to coincide with the change in age-limit for tobacco and vapor products nor does it add cessation services for those 18-20 who may soon find themselves addicted and breaking the law. The state has enough accessible tools and services currently to help those addicted to tobacco and nicotine products, he said.

“My goal is to pass the bill in three years,” Ferguson said.

Brandon Macz, Bellevue Reporter staff writer or 425-453-4602

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