New smoking age bill stalled in legislature

The Washington State Attorney General is "disappointed" with the slow progress of a current bill that would raise the smoking age, he said last week.

The Washington State Attorney General is “disappointed” with the slow progress of a current bill that would raise the smoking age, he said last week.

Two companion bills currently in front of the state Legislature would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. If passed, the bills would make it a gross misdemeanor to sell tobacco or vapor products to anyone younger than 21.

But the bill has remained stalled in the Legislature since February. Its Senate version last received a hearing in the Commerce and Labor Committee Feb. 1. The House version — which is co-sponsored by Issaquah Rep. Chad Magendanz — was recommended for passage by the Health Care and Wellness Committee Jan. 29.

The bill has remained in House Appropriations since Feb. 2. A report from the Office of Financial Management concluded a passed bill would cost the state more than $10 million a year in lost tax revenue. Committee members have said they’re struggling with justifying that hit.

“We can’t figure out how we can afford it with all the other things we need to pay for,” Committee Chair Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, told The Daily Herald’s Jerry Cornfield in February.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he thinks that justification is poor in the face of the bill’s benefits to young Washingtonians’ health.

“Are we really balancing our budget on the backs of teenage smokers?” Ferguson said in a meeting with the Reporter March 3.

This is the second year in a row the Attorney General’s office has recommended the Legislature increase the smoking age. Both times, the office released figures estimating $2.81 billion in health care costs related to smoking. The savings to the state in medical care should easily outpace the loss in tax revenue, Ferguson’s Chief of Staff Mamie Marcuss said.

Taxes not collected through cigarette purchases can be collected as regular sales tax if the money is spent on other purchases, Ferguson said.

And beyond that, Washington state continues to collect its share of payments on a 1997 $300 billion settlement from tobacco companies to 39 states. The money from that settlement was meant to reimburse smoking related Medicaid costs and pay for smoking prevention programs. But the Legislature has, on several occasions, borrowed from those settlements to balance other state funds, Ferguson said.

“That’s why I find the argument … a bit ironic,” he said. “Last year alone, our office gave a check for $15 million paid by Big Tobacco to the state. Take that $15 million, put it there, and you still have $5 million left over. That’s the way I look at it.”

Hawaii became the first state to raise the smoking age to 21 after legislation went into effect Jan. 1. More than 100 local governments have also raised their legal smoking age to 21 — most recently San Francisco, New York City and Boston.

But Ferguson points to the suburb of Needham, Massachusetts — the first place to increase the smoking age to 21 — as a successful example of how stricter smoking laws can succeed. A MetroWest Health Foundation study of 29 Boston suburbs found that the number of Needham High School students who smoked fell in half from 2006 to 2010.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that the adult smoking rate was 8 percent in Needham, compared to an 18.1 percent rate statewide. The Department also found lower mortality rates and hospitalizations related to lung cancer.

“There is all sorts of evidence that if you don’t take up smoking by 21, there’s a very small chance you ever will take it up,” Ferguson said. “There’s an internal RJ Reynolds memo that came out … years ago in which some RJ Reynolds person writes ‘Raising the smoking age to 21 would cut our key demographic — teenagers.'”

An older smoking age would also mean high school seniors could no longer buy tobacco products legally, eliminating an avenue for potential underage smokers to obtain cigarettes.