OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are considering raising the age to buy tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 in an effort to lower addiction rates and cut back on nicotine in schools.
Washington would join its West Coast neighbors, Oregon and California, and a similar bill was recently introduced into the Idaho legislature.
The bill, requested by both the state Attorney General and the Washington Department of Health, would make selling tobacco to anyone under 21 a gross misdemeanor. Anyone under 21 who buys tobacco would be charged with a civil infraction.
The bill was heard before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee Thursday. Small business owners, business groups and health policy groups all crowded in the hearing room, some fearing for their children and some fearing for their livelihoods.
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that one in four 12th-graders smoked or vaped, and he called the bill “the single most important policy we could adopt to protect the health of our kids.”
The National Institute of Medicine reported that raising the purchasing age to 21 would have the largest effect on 15- to 17-year-olds, who would no longer have access to tobacco or vaping products from classmates. If the policy was enacted nationwide, the institute predicts the smoking rate would decrease by 12 percent.
Legislators noted that the state spends almost $3 billion every year on health care directly as a result of tobacco use, which costs the average household $821 in taxes.
Many business owners were unconvinced about the health benefits of the bill, which they said would drive shoppers to Idaho or to Native-American reservations, where the law wouldn’t apply.
Calvin Yi is the president of the Korean American Grocers Association, whose 900 members have over 3,000 employees. Yi said he does not oppose the spirit of the bill, but he said that the law would be unfair in an industry that already puts pressure on small businesses.
“Our small convenience store and gas station owners are fighting to survive,” Yi said. “We have to compete with big supermarkets for gas business, and also have to compete with native-Indian owned gas stations and smoke shops right next to us.”
Businesses owned in Idaho or within tribal lands are exempt from many taxes that the average Washington business pays, and raising the purchasing age to 21 would only compound the disadvantages borne by small businesses, Yi said. Further, Yi said, as long as 18- to 20-year-olds can make a quick trip to tribal land and still purchase tobacco, the bill would not be effective.
“(This bill) is not going to work if this law does not apply to everyone,” Yi said.
David Hall, who owns a convenience store in Edmonds, was the only business owner who testified in support of the bill. Hall said that other business owners were overreacting.
“I ran the numbers, and discovered that for a convenience store, this bill is a proverbial ‘nothing-burger,’” Hall said. He calculated that with tobacco, which had the lowest profit margin of any product in his business, the average convenience store only made $4 in profit a day.
“If your business model depends on selling an addictive substance to teenagers which will eventually kill many of them, to make an extra four bucks a day, I think you need a different business model, and a bit more humanity,” Hall said.
But business owners who testified in opposition to the bill were more afraid that consumers wouldn’t purchase other things if they didn’t walk into the store to buy tobacco.
“They don’t just buy tobacco,” said Carolyn Logue, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of the Washington Food Industry Association.
Another point of contention Thursday was whether vaping was a net-positive which people used to wean off more harmful cigarettes. Wiesman said vaping is a gateway product that led to youth using cigarettes down the road. Julie Anderson of eCig n’Vape said over 2,000 of her customers have used her products to stop smoking cigarettes.
“We are just as passionate about people not smoking as most of you all here,” Anderson said.
At least one lawmaker seemed uncertain that vaping should be included in the bill.
The bill did not pass out of policy committee before the cutoff date, but a companion bill in the House has until Tuesday, Feb. 6 to pass through the Rules Committee.