Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to make Washington the first state with a legal smoking age of 21.
To back him up, Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Rep Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, on Wednesday introduced bills to do so in the Senate and in the House. Both Miloscia and Orwall predicted the legislation would take two or three years to pass – fairly normal for bills involving any significant controversy.
"Is it gonna be tough? You bet," Ferguson said.
Four states — Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah — have minimum smoking ages of 19. The rest, including Washington have minimum ages of 18 for purchasing and possessing tobacco products. A handful of cities and counties across the nation have bumped the minimum age up to 21.
Ferguson, Orwall, Miloscia and Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said discouraging 18- to 21-year-olds from smoking would have ripple effects on younger kids' access to tobacco and would reduce the long-term health effects of smoking.
"Plain and simple, this bill is about saving our kids from a lifetime of addiction," Wiesman said. The bills' language contends that a quarter of teens who experiment with cigarettes become regular smokers between the ages of 18 and 21.
The bills would also forbid vaping with nicotine products for people younger than 21. Seventeen percent of Washington's high school seniors have used vapor delivery systems at least once, according to state statistics.
Soldiers, sailors and airmen under 21 would still be allowed to buy and smoke tobacco products on their bases, but would be legally banned from doing so off their posts, Ferguson said. Eighteen- to 21-year-olds buying and smoking on tribal lands is a trickier legal topic that would likely have to be resolved tribe by tribe, he said.
Ferguson and others at a Wednesday press conference cited U.S Department of Health and Human Services figures that say 90 percent of adult smokers started in their teens.
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They also pointed to the example of Needham, Mass., a Boston suburb of roughly 29,000, which installed the nation's first 21-year-old smoking age in 2005. In 2006, 12.9 percent of Needham's high school students said they smoked at least one cigarette in the previous month, and 5.5 percent smoked at least 20 a month. In 2012, the once-a-month figure dropped to 5.5 percent and the 20-or-more figure dropped to 1.4 percent.
Ferguson said 21 years was picked — rather than 19 years as in the four other states — partly because it is the same legal age to smoke marijuana or to drink alcohol in Washington. He and Wiesman said the enforcement practices would be the same as for alcohol and marijuana use by younger people — training store clerks, conducting undercover stings to find out who sells to underage people and relying on routine police work.
About making 21 the legal age for smoking, Ferguson said, "Because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it can't be done."