The stage was set: On New Year’s Day, Washington was to become the last state on the West Coast to raise its minimum legal age to purchase tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21.
That changed suddenly last week when Congress slipped a similar provision into a massive emergency spending bill, which the president signed on Dec. 20, making 21 the legal age to buy tobacco and vaping products.
Pitched here and across the country as a way to curb smoking, vaping and nicotine addiction among youth, the new age limit will kick in as Gov. Jay Inslee requests more regulations on vapor products — also with the aim of preventing consumption among kids — in the next Washington state legislative session, which begins Jan. 13.
The state law, signed by Inslee last spring, is predicated on research showing most people start smoking in their teens and early 20s. As the state contends with an outbreak of lung injuries tied to e-cigarettes and a rise in the number of young people reporting that they vape, officials hope the new law will slow the use of vape products in schools, where they say 18-year-old high school students have been buying products for classmates who are still minors.
“Raising that age limit is going to create additional social separation,” said Justin Nordhorn, chief of enforcement at the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, a state agency that reports to the governor. “You’re cutting down the opportunities for those youth to go out and say, ‘Hey, can you buy me this?’ “
Usually, new federal legislation doesn’t take effect right away. But the change increased the age limit in existing law, so it could go into effect immediately, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration said Friday.
A spokeswoman for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board said until Jan. 1, a state officer who sees retailers selling to people under 21 will provide education instead of enforcement.
To curb vaping among teens, advocates say an increase in the minimum age should be coupled with a ban on flavored products. Washington’s 120-day ban will expire in early February; Inslee and other lawmakers want to make it permanent in 2020.
Between 2014 and 2018, there was a 20% increase in the number of youth reporting electronic cigarette or vape use in Washington, according to the state’s Healthy Youth Survey. Public officials say the rise coincides with the introduction of vapes made by companies like Juul, which paid social-media influencers to promote its products. This year, Seattle Public Schools, the La Conner School District and King County sued the firm. (Seattle and La Conner’s lawsuits were recently folded into a federal lawsuit with those of other school districts.)
Other than the increase in minimum age to purchase, there won’t be any big changes to the way the state enforces tobacco-sales laws. Stores can face fines of anywhere from $200 to $3,000 for selling to customers under 21 and risk losing their licenses. Employees caught selling to minors can face a criminal charge akin to a misdemeanor, but more often get a civil fine.
It will still be legal for adults under 21 to possess tobacco products and bring them into Washington from other states.
Skeptics, especially those working in smoke shops, say kids will still find a way around the new law — echoing similar sentiments across the country. Between the new law and the 120-day ban on flavored products, they say a new black market will emerge.
“I don’t think it’s gonna make any difference for the kids,” said Ali Yaz, who manages The City Smoke Shop on Rainier Avenue in Seattle. “But it will affect the stores,” he added, saying that he anticipates the shop to lose about 35% of its profits.
In 2015, the National Academy of Medicine projected that raising the legal age for tobacco sales would lead to a 12% reduction in tobacco use by the time current teens became adults. Needham, Massachusetts, which became one of the first cities to raise the purchasing age in 2005, showed a substantially lower youth smoking rate compared to neighboring cities, according to a study from researchers at Harvard and Brown universities.
About 13.7% of American adults ages 18 and up smoked cigarettes in 2018, compared to 7.8% of 18 to 24-year-olds, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
While Nordhorn acknowledges illicit sales could increase, a black market already exists, he said, adding that most people under the age of 18 aren’t buying products directly from a store. To check compliance with the current law, the board sends minors into stores randomly to see if employees will sell to them. Of the more than 1,600 checks the board performed last year for tobacco and vape product sales, about 10% of businesses failed. (There are about 9,000 state-issued licenses for tobacco and vapor products.)
Beyond following up on tips, Nordhorn said there aren’t many other ways the board can respond to illegal resale of tobacco products.
Students and teachers said they’ve heard some teens have been stocking up in anticipation of the new law.
At Ballard High School, where a smoke shop used to operate across the street, you can find a student vaping “one or two out of three times you walk into a bathroom,” said Aneesa Roidad, a senior.
Roidad says raising the age limit is a positive move that could start more conversation around regulating products.
“I don’t smoke or vape myself,” she said. “But I do think it would be easier to ask a senior or a friend than find someone who is 21.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting.