Bills to raise legal smoking age in state stall

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers may snuff out an attempt to raise the legal age for smoking.

Bills introduced in the House and Senate to hike the age from 18 to 21 have stalled amid concerns about the impact on the state budget and the fairness of the change.

The bills would require a person be at least 21 years old to buy or smoke tobacco products. Purchase of vaping devices and e-cigarettes by people under 21 also would be banned.

A fiscal analysis estimated the state would collect $10.4 million less in tax receipts this budget and $21.9 million in the 2017-19 cycle due to fewer sales of cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

The potential loss of revenue is what waylaid House Bill 2313 in the Committee on Appropriations.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, the committee chairman and the chamber’s chief budget writer, said coming up with the money to pay for last year’s wildfires, additional staffing at the state psychiatric hospitals and other emergent needs is going to be tough.

“We can’t figure out how we can afford it with all the other things we need to pay for,” he said. “If I had the money, it would come out (of committee). If we can afford it in the end we’ll do it.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has pushed for the change for two years in a row, isn’t giving up.

“It’s not dead. Speaking candidly we’re not excited,” he said. “I’m intensely unhappy with the failure of the Appropriations Committee to vote it through.”

If supporters manage to get the House to advance the bill, hurdles await in the Senate.

This year, the Senate bill to raise the smoking age received a hearing in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee but no vote.

Chairman Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is unsupportive of the policy.

“It’s hard for me to think that we can treat 18-year-olds as adults and say they’re old enough to send to war but not old enough to buy cigarettes,” he said.

Supporters argue that the short-term loss of revenue will be offset over time by the state spending less money to deal with the negative effects of smoking.

A study by the National Institute of Medicine concluded that raising the legal smoking age to 21 would result in a 12 percent drop in the smoking rate and reduce deaths related to smoking by 10 percent.

“It may save money in the future,” Dunshee said. “I’ve got to balance the budget now.”

Ferguson is holding out hope that the bill can or its provisions added into the budget before the session ends March 10.

“It’s a challenge. We recognize that,” he said. “It’s not dead. We’re going to keep fighting for it.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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