LONGVIEW — After waiting years to turn 18 and get “all the privileges that come with it,” Rainiah Larsen was upset when she learned about a new state law that takes one of those privileges away.
Starting Jan. 1, 2020, Larsen and anyone under the age of 21 will no longer have the right to buy cigarettes and vaping products in Washington.
“I just don’t see the point in changing it already, especially when everything is going to be the same still,” Larsen, 17, of Kelso told the Daily News. “I think it is also wrong considering the people who are already 18, the people who already got involved with nicotine products and such. . How is it fair to all of the sudden tell them they cannot (buy those products)?”
Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill April 5, making Washington the ninth state to increase the legal age for buying tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. The bill’s aim is to make it more difficult for minors to get smoking products. (Possession itself would not be punished. But it will be illegal for anyone, including parents, to sell or give tobacco or vaping products to people under the age of 21.)
“The Legislature recognized that many people who purchase cigarettes for minors are between the ages of 18 to 20,” the bill reads. “By decreasing the number of eligible buyers in high school, raising the minimum legal age to sell tobacco and vapor products will decrease the access of students to tobacco products.”
According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey, the rate of smoking and vaping among high schoolers in Cowlitz County is higher than the state average. Almost 43 percent of Cowlitz County high school seniors participating in the Healthy Youth Survey reported using vaping products in the last month, and about 12 percent said they used cigarettes. That’s compared to 30 percent and 8 percent statewide.
Also, well over half of the 10th graders in Cowlitz County who smoke said they got their tobacco and vape products form a “social source,” or someone they know, according to the Health Youth Survey. That’s also true across the state.
“Because 18- to 20-year-olds supply younger teens with tobacco and vape products, this will reduce the number of cigarettes and vape products in our high schools, which will lead to fewer kids getting addicted,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a prepared statement after the bill was signed into law.
Paul Youmans, director of Pathways 2020 and member of Cowlitz on the Move, said changing the age will make it harder for some youth to get their cigarettes and vaping products from friends or family. Both organizations advocated for the age-raise legislation.
“There is a correlation to think of as well. Some will say it’s not enforceable, but there is a social norm involved, that if you set the standard at one level, the community will come up to that level,” Youmans said. “That’s what makes it so exciting and positive in this community, because those things do improve.”
But Rainiah Larsen, the Kelso student, doesn’t think the new age-raise bill will do much to stop students from getting their hands on nicotine products. “I don’t think changing the law is going to make it any harder for minors to get vaping products. I think that they are going to get them either way,” Larsen said. “Whether the law is 18 or 21, if someone is already addicted to nicotine, they will find a way.”
Although young adults will “undoubtedly” still be able to access these products, it won’t be as easily or often, Youmans said.
“And again, if we can keep the youth from starting to smoke, that’s where the real benefit comes in.”
In 2016, Hawaii was the first state to raise its age limit for smoking. So far, the state has not seen a large drop in overall smoking rates, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
Marshall Brock, manager of the Kelso and Longview Vipor Vapor stores, said he expects it to be another 10 to 20 years before researchers determine whether bills like this make a difference. In the meantime, he doesn’t suspect the law will “do much harm” to tobacco and vaping businesses.
“In my opinion, the only thing it messes with is labeling,” Brock said.
Nancy Spisla, manager of Smokin’ Chokin’ Vape in Longview, shared a similar perspective. She said her shop has only a few buyers in the 18- to 20-year-old range.
“I didn’t really like seeing the 18-year-olds coming in here, so I have no problem moving it to 21. Being at that young age, they don’t need a habit or addiction,” Spisla said, adding “Being a mother, I wouldn’t want my 18-year-old vaping.”
A handful of shoppers at Fred Meyer, though skeptical about whether the age-raise will really stop young adults from finding a way to access tobacco and vaping products, said they support the new law.
“Teenagers make bad decisions. . even at 21 they are kind of rash, so the older the better,” said a 68-year-old Longview resident who identified himself only as Tom. He said he quit smoking in the 1970s after getting throat cancer.
Two other shoppers, Julie Trevino and Karen Abel, said they think vaping is “out of control,” but this new law might challenge its rising popularity.
“People will find a way to do what they want to do, but at least this makes it harder,” Trevino said.
Some local teens also support the change, emphasizing the adverse health effects of smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, and cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Although fewer long-term studies are available on the health effects of vaping — a relatively new alternative to smoking tobacco — the habit can be hazardous for teenagers, whose brain development can be negatively affected by the nicotine, the CDC says.
A local high school student who identified herself only as Mattea said, “For years we’ve been warned about the health and issues that can come with smoking tobacco. On the other hand, they have made it more enjoyable for teens to start early with vapes, and a variety of flavors. This will only be the beginning of a really great cause. Of course kids will be kids and find ways, but making it a little harder is the next first step.”
And even Larsen can see the long-term benefits of the switch, she said, especially for kids who are not already addicted to nicotine. It may also help prevent her future kids and grandkids from smoking and vaping, she said.
“But as someone who isn’t a part of the ‘long run,’ it is hard to see the positive,” she said.
“I’m not very political or anything like that, but I am very upset that they are going to be changing the law. I was about to be 18. I have three months.”