The use of tobacco products among Washington state teens has been on a healthy decline since 2002, dropping from 23 percent of high school seniors in 2002 to 13 percent of seniors in 2014, according to the state Department of Health’s Healthy Youth Survey. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say recent surveys show that about 9 percent of high school students smoke.
But the number of teens and young adults who smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco and use vaping products — and risk their health and that of others — could be driven down further if Washington and other states raised the minimum age for smoking to 21. Last year, Hawaii passed the first such increase in the minimum age for tobacco use. New Jersey’s legislature also has passed a similar law, though Gov. Chris Christie has made no promise to sign it and vetoed a bill in 2014 that would have extended that state’s public smoking ban to parks and beaches.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson proposed legislation last year to raise the smoking age to 21, but bills in the House and Senate did not advance to a floor vote. This year, the legislation — House Bill 2313 and Senate Bill 6157 — has returned with additional sponsors and bipartisan support. Even in a short session, Ferguson and others are optimistic that legislation will win passage this year.
The arguments for raising the minimum age to 21 are sound.
Smoking remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S., and kills an estimated 8,300 Washington state residents every year. If the smoking age remains at 18, the AG’s office estimates, 104,000 state youths now under the age of 21 will die prematurely from tobacco-caused diseases.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Institute of Medicine concluded in 2015, that reducing the smoking age to 21 would result in 249,000 fewer premature deaths for those born between 2000 and 2019, including 45,000 fewer deaths from cancer.
You don’t have to smoke to be effected by this. In this state alone the cost to the health care system caused by smoking amounts to $2.81 billion each year, adding to what each household pays in state and federal taxes by $819.
Reducing the smoking age would keep more youths from becoming addicted to nicotine and smoking and would reduce the exposure to those who don’t smoke. The state Department of Health notes that as tobacco becomes more difficult to obtain in stores, youths often turn to social sources, such as older friends and family members and other adults. Further limiting those social sources would make it more difficult for teens, particularly those between 15 and 17, to obtain tobacco. The Healthy Youth Survey found that 41 percent of 10th graders said it was “sort of easy” or “very easy” to get cigarettes.
Another CDC study shows that nearly half of all U.S. students in middle and high school are routinely exposed to second-hand smoke. Nearly 1 in 4 are exposed to it daily at home, school, vehicles or in public. There is, as the U.S. Surgeon General has said, no safe level of second-hand smoke.
Importantly, the law also would apply to e-cigarettes and vaping products. While these can show promise as a way to quit a nicotine habit, health officials are still concerned that they can introduce youths to smoking and that the health effects of vaping still are not well understood. A recent study by the Veterans Administration San Diego Healthcare System and University of California, San Diego, has found that heavy exposure to e-cigarette vapor, whether it contains nicotine or not, damages DNA in cell cultures and could lead to cancer.
In an Associated Press report recently, state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he was open to a hearing on the legislation before the committee he chairs. But Baumgartner is not convinced of the need.
“My position is if you can fight and die for your country you ought to be able to have a cigarette,” he told the AP.
Maybe so. But why should anyone now under the age of 21, at some point in his or her life, have to fight cancer and die for a bad habit.