Raising the age to 21 to purchase tobacco will drastically reduce the number of Washingtonians who smoke and significantly decreasing the disease burden and health-care costs for our young people as they grow up.
As state lawmakers head back to Olympia on Jan. 14, they’ll face important decisions about how to improve the health of our state. One issue that should be top of mind is raising the sales age to 21 for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.
This new year, 13,700 Washington kids will try smoking for the first time. Unless current smoking rates in Washington decline, 104,000 kids in our state who are alive today will die from a tobacco-related illness.
As the Washington government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the nation’s leading cancer-advocacy organization, and as doctors who treat patients affected by tobacco-related illness at the world-renowned Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, we are committed to reducing the cancer burden in our communities. That’s why our organizations support “tobacco 21” efforts and urge the Legislature to make this public health policy a priority.
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State Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, are lead sponsors of the tobacco 21 bill, with the support of many of their legislative colleagues. The bill would raise the age of sale for tobacco to 21 while leaving current retail and enforcement measures intact. In addition to raising the age, our state needs to increase funds for Washington’s youth tobacco prevention program to 25 percent of the CDC-recommended level, as recommended by the state Department of Health. Washington currently ranks 43rd in the nation for tobacco-prevention funding.
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These common-sense actions hold the promise of drastically reducing the number of Washingtonians who smoke and significantly decreasing the disease burden and health-care costs for our young people as they grow up.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the nation and claims the lives of more than 8,000 Washingtonians every year. Roughly 27 percent of all cancer deaths in the state are caused by smoking. Tobacco use also is financially destructive, costing Washingtonians more than $2.8 billion in annual health-care costs from tobacco-related diseases. This includes treating lung cancer — the leading cause of cancer deaths — as well as a range of other cancers, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases and other illnesses.
Given that 95 percent of adult smokers become addicted before they turn 21, passing tobacco 21 legislation would help protect future generations. Younger teens often get tobacco products from their older classmates, so increasing the sales age would help keep tobacco out of high schools and away from teen peer groups.
The latest data show almost 8 percent of Washington high schoolers smoke cigarettes and nearly 21 percent use electronic cigarettes. Youth use of e-cigarettes has risen so dramatically in recent years that the FDA has declared it an “epidemic.” Our state lawmakers must act to protect Washington kids from the harms of Big Tobacco.
Raising the national sales age for tobacco products to 21 is predicted to reduce smoking rates by 25 percent among 15-to-17-year-old teens, according to a report from the National Academy of Medicine. The report also predicts raising the sales age nationally would cut overall smoking-related deaths by nearly 10 percent.
Many other states, cities and counties nationwide are considering tobacco 21 laws. To date, six states, including California, Oregon and Hawaii, have passed this legislation — and it’s time for Washington state to join them.
Raising the tobacco sales age to 21 will help save lives, reduce health-care costs, fight addiction and move us toward a tobacco-free generation. We strongly encourage all Washingtonians to urge their legislators to support the tobacco 21 bill.