By its own admission, Washington state’s government is addicted to tobacco — or at least to the revenue it produces for the state. As legislators return to work this week for the start of the 2018 session, they should break that addiction and raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. Such a move would be beneficial for the health of citizens and, in the long run, for the state’s finances.
Not that addictions are easily snubbed out. Legislative efforts to raise the legal age for tobacco products in Washington have fallen short in recent years, and bills introduced last year in both the House and Senate languished in committee.
For some lawmakers, dissent is a question of personal freedom and allowing would-be smokers to make their own decisions — regardless of how harmful those decisions might be. For others, it is a matter of finances and the fact that tobacco taxes are being counted upon to provide $22 million for the 2017-19 budget. But, as state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, “I’m not sure we should be balancing the budget on the backs of teenagers addicted to nicotine.” Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, is among the leaders pushing for the age limit to be increased.
Such a discussion might seem anachronistic. Nationally, the number of adults who smoke cigarettes has plummeted from 42 percent of the population in 1965 to about 15 percent in 2015, while the percentage of high school students who smoke dropped from 28 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2016. In Washington, the percentage of smokers is lower than the national average.
Despite this trend, tobacco remains a worthy topic of discussion in Olympia. Nearly 20 years ago, then-Attorney General Chris Gregoire led a national charge to hold tobacco companies accountable for the health costs they generate for states. The result was a $300 billion settlement to annually reimburse states for money spent on treating Medicaid patients who have smoking-related illnesses. The legal argument was that tobacco companies knowingly worked to make and market a product it knew was dangerous and addictive.
This year, Washington will receive more than $500 million from that settlement in addition to more than $3 a pack in taxes. Out of that, the state has budgeted only $1.4 million for programs designed to prevent teens from smoking or to help smokers break the habit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that Washington spend $63.6 million on anti-tobacco education. Meanwhile, tobacco companies are spending much more than that to create new smokers.
Those marketing efforts will include a bit of a twist this year, as tobacco companies are airing national TV ads warning of the dangers of smoking. In 2006, after years of legal wrangling, a federal court determined that companies had “lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public.” More than a decade later, that is leading to advertising with messages such as, “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”
All of this will help Washington breathe easier. The state Department of Health, after all, estimates that tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the state, with about 7,500 each year.
But preventing future smokers would go even further in reducing medical costs down the road. The Legislature can take a step in that direction by raising the legal age for tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21.
The editorial above appeared Friday in The (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian.