Pat Godfrey started smoking cigarettes when he was a teenager and didn’t stop for 20 years. He eventually quit after a six-year process that included patches, gum and a treatment program. But he got lung cancer anyway.
“I tended to be rebellious in my teen years and took up the habits that I wanted to, like so many kids,” said Godfrey, 71, who faced a cancer diagnosis more than 10 years ago and who today refers to himself as a cancer survivor. “I don’t think we realized we were becoming addicted.”
The King County Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Administrative Board is asking the Legislature to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, Godfrey, the board president, said Wednesday. The 15-member volunteer board, created to provide input to the King County Department of Community and Human Services, drafted a resolution citing the highly addictive nature of nicotine, the number of teens and adults who smoke cigarettes and the need for consistency in the age at which a person can legally purchase alcohol, marijuana and tobacco.
Raising the legal age would significantly reduce access to tobacco among those under 21 and make it less likely they would start smoking, Godfrey said. By the time they are 21, would-be users have outgrown their “experimental stage” and would be less likely to try tobacco.
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“If you can discourage teens from taking up the habit in the first place, the long-term benefits are enormous,” Godfrey said.
The proposed age change would be uniform with alcohol laws and Initiative 502, which decriminalized marijuana possession and use for those for those 21 and older.
“Consistency is a significant factor, especially when you look at the logic,” Godfrey said. “And by making it uniform to marijuana and liquor, it makes it easier for the retailers.”
Godfrey said the board’s decision to draft the resolution was sparked by New York City changing the legal age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21 last year. Some New York retailers, however, said the change would drive those between 18 and 21 to buy tobacco products on the black market. When Utah and Colorado lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to pass proposals to increase the age, Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris, said in a statement that the company supports 18 as the minimum age, according to The Associated Press.
In New York City, those under 21 can still possess tobacco products; they just cannot legally purchase them. The King County board resolution doesn’t define whether the proposed law would outlaw tobacco possession for people under 21 in Washington. The Legislature would make that decision, Godfrey said. The board hopes legislators will introduce a bill in next year’s session.
“Just passing a law doesn’t necessarily mean you change your whole culture,” Godfrey said. “It’s going to take a lot more than that in terms of education and parental influence and people just being smarter in general in terms of trying to discourage this behavior from starting in the first place. But if you can get them into the later years, the chances of them not becoming smokers are quite good.”
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or firstname.lastname@example.org