OLYMPIA – The legal age for buying tobacco and vaping products in Washington state will rise to 21 next year, after the Senate on Wednesday handily approved a measure targeting addiction and the rising popularity of tobacco products among teens.
House Bill 1074 passed the Senate 33 to 12, with some Republicans joining in to support making Washington the ninth state, according to Attorney General Bob Ferguson, to boost the age to 21.
The bill passed the state House earlier this year and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. Inslee has supported the measure, which came at the request of the Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Health.
The legislation has wide support in the medical community, and even the popular vaping-product company, Juul, supported the bill.
A long-sought priority for Democrats and some Republicans, HB 1074 this year was sponsored by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.
It raises the legal minimum age for buying tobacco and vapor products, to 21 from 18. A violation would be a gross misdemeanor.
“I think it will really help the youth in this state between the ages of 18 and 21, absolutely,” Harris said Wednesday.
Vaping products, such as electronic cigarettes, heat a liquid to make an aerosol that often contains nicotine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Users then inhale that aerosol, which doesn’t generally have as many toxic chemicals as regular cigarettes.
Such devices potentially help adult smokers if used to completely replace conventional cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products, according to the CDC. But they aren’t considered safe for kids, young adults, pregnant women or people who don’t already smoke.
State Sen. Bob Hasegawa of Seattle, one of two Democrats Wednesday to vote against the bill, said lawmakers shouldn’t be discouraging vaping because it offers smokers an alternative to cigarettes.
“I object to the fact that vapor products are being equated to tobacco,” said Hasegawa, who drew recognition in 2017 for vaping while playing a flute at a talent show for Seattle mayoral candidates.
The bill’s success has been years in the making. Ferguson first requested a version of the legislation in 2015, and proposals appeared again in 2016 and 2017.
Last year, a bill passed the House on the second-to-last day of the session, without enough time to move through the Senate.
Harris attributed its success this year in part to more recent concerns about vaping.
“We’ve heard from a lot of principals and a lot of school districts were really having an issue with kids vaping now,” he said.
In a news release, Ferguson said the bill would help reduce that, “because 18- to 20-year-olds supply younger teens with tobacco and vape products.”
Ted Kwong, spokesman for Juul, said the company supported the bill.
“We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” Kwong said in a news release.
The owner of Future Vapor on Capitol Hill in Seattle said he welcomes the change, but worries that some of his friends who work in other shops might lose business.
“All in all, I feel like it’s a good idea,” said Zach McLain. “It would probably stop seniors in high school from getting a hold of these products.”
While he sometimes sees people in his shop who are under 21, McLain said, most are adults who are trying to make the switch from cigarettes.
McLain said he thinks there should be exemptions for people in the military.
Eight other states and Washington, D.C., have raised their tobacco-purchase ages, according to the American Lung Association. Those states are California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah and Virginia.
Staff reporter Asia Fields contributed to this report.