Inslee signs new law that raises legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products
Last Wednesday was a pretty average day for Madison Langer. That is, until the Ridgefield High School senior got a call from her mom during class saying “I’m so proud of you.” Langer said thanks but then asked her mom — proud of me for what?
Her mom broke the news: The state Legislature had just passed a bill that raises the age to buy tobacco and vaping products, a bill that Langer spent two years supporting.
“I went back into the room and said, ‘Guess what, everyone — this bill passed!’” Langer said with a laugh. “Not everyone was jumping up and down because, shockingly, some high school students aren’t excited about their tobacco use being restricted. But I was excited, so it counts.”
Langer joined Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, dozens of students, legislators and local health leaders as Inslee signed the bill into law Friday at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The bill raises the legal minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. The Senate passed the bipartisan bill last Wednesday, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
“We know the risks associated with tobacco and nicotine,” Inslee said. “We know how much easier it is to prevent our children from becoming addicted in the first place than to treat the addiction later in life, or even worse, to treat the cancers and diseases caused by these products.”
Ferguson and the Department of Health requested the bill, which the governor and first lady Trudi Inslee have long supported. The bill was considered in five legislative sessions before being passed this year.
Ferguson said the Legislature is saving thousands of Washingtonians from a lifetime of addiction and smoking-related illness through this bill.
“Because 18- to 20-year-olds supply younger teens with tobacco and vape products, this will reduce the number of cigarettes and vape products in our high schools, which will lead to fewer kids getting addicted,” Ferguson said. “I want to thank the large bipartisan group of elected leaders, health advocates, businesses, educators, students and parents for helping us make this happen. Addressing the heavy toll of tobacco-related disease, both in human lives and health care costs, moves us closer to being able to provide universal access to affordable health care for all Washingtonians.”
Rep. Paul Harris, the bill’s primary sponsor in the House, said he’s been concerned for years about the amount of tobacco-related products on school campuses and how accessible they are to youth.
“The most common preventable cause of death in our country today is tobacco,” Harris said. “Tobacco 21 is a big first step in limiting the access our young people have to vapor and tobacco products. The Tobacco 21 movement is growing strong across the country. We have had strong bipartisan support here in Washington.”
John Wiesman, Washington State Department of Health secretary, said the new law will make a significant difference in the health of young adults.
“This bill is a critical step to reduce tobacco and vapor product use among youth in Washington,” Wiesman said. “Youth vaping rates have sharply increased in recent years, and raising the minimum age of sale to 21 will help protect young people from developing a nicotine addiction.”
A student’s story
To 17-year-old Langer, this bill is personal. She volunteers as a national youth ambassador for Tobacco Free Kids and even testified in support of the bill earlier this year. But what makes the bill especially meaningful is that she’s a former drug and tobacco user.
At age 15, Langer said someone offered her a Cap’n Crunch-flavored vaping device. It didn’t look like anything she had seen before — and it definitely didn’t look like a cigarette — so what was the harm?
“It smelled enticing and it was something I wasn’t educated about,” Langer said. “I wasn’t allowed to have Cap’n Crunch as a kid so it was a double rebellion.”
From the first day she took a hit, Langer said it was a “no-brainer” to use the device whenever it was around. She didn’t think the product would cause that much harm. But Langer’s vaping use changed the way she thought about substances and she eventually found herself using drugs, too. When she decided she wanted to get clean, it was tough to get sober around her then-current group of friends.
“When you don’t use drugs, the drug users don’t want to hang out with you,” she said. “So I lost my friend group.”
On top of finishing high school, Langer currently works at an educational service district in Vancouver as a tobacco prevention assistant. Eventually, she wants to work for a marketing agency on social change issues. She now feels like she — and public policy — are moving in the right direction.
“It’s awesome to have the government respond to something that’s such an issue and make change to it,” Langer said. “The truth is, it all started with tobacco for me. Now I’m a youth advocate for prevention. I found my home and my relief in prevention work.”
Science backs tobacco law
The new law affects the 15- to 18-year-old age group the most. That’s because among adults who become daily smokers, about 90 percent report they first used cigarettes before they were 19, according to a 2012 Surgeon General’s report.
Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a smoking cessation researcher at Fred Hutch, said almost all the patients he had treated for nicotine addiction first used tobacco as a minor.
“This landmark state law builds a future generation of Washington youth who are free of nicotine and tobacco and will encourage today’s youth to try quitting,” Bricker said. “As a tobacco control researcher for the past 20 years, I am delighted to see science-informed policy put to immediate use.”
The report also states that close to 100 percent report using their first cigarette before the age of 26. That’s the main reason this bill could be a game changer: An Institute of Medicine report estimates a 15 to 25 percent decrease in tobacco initiation rates for teenagers when the legal age for use is 21.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, primary sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said this new law will save lives.
“The medical science confirms what my parents knew a long time ago: If you haven’t started smoking by the time you turn 21, it’s likely that you never will,” Kuderer said. “For generations, we saw smoking decline among Americans. Now, students are vaping as early as middle school. We simply cannot afford to let this reemerging epidemic gain any more traction than it has already, which is why I am proud that we have finally moved this lifesaving legislation to the finish line.”
Among people who aren’t smoking by age 21, 95 percent will never start, according to that 2012 Surgeon General’s report.
Keith Eaton, clinical director of thoracic, head and neck cancer at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance said Tobacco 21 is a common sense approach that ensures a healthier future for young Washingtonians.
“As a physician caring for patients, I see the suffering that advanced lung cancer causes for patients and their families,” Eaton said. “Reducing the number of smokers is the most effective way to prevent lung cancer. I am often struck by how many patients started using tobacco as teenagers and how addictive it can be.”
Teenagers and vaping
Scott Seaman, executive director at the Association of Washington School Principals, said vaping happens in class, hallways and especially in school bathrooms. Many schools now go to great lengths to patrol restrooms and many students are scared to enter them because of the number of students vaping there.
While vaping interferes with learning and contributes to poor health issues, Seaman said something deeper may be going on with students who vape. It’s why he said this issue shouldn’t be treated as a discipline issue but rather as a mental health crisis.
“Kids vape for various reasons,” Seaman said. “But a large reason may be because they lack healthier coping skills.”
With the new bill in place, Seaman said school officials can take back their schools and help students take back their bathrooms. While it may be hard to enforce at first as administrators clamp down, he said the bill was the right move.
Like Langer, high school senior Cami Brix also testified in support of the bill. Brix became involved in tobacco prevention through her work as a student representative of Inglemoor High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association and Tobacco Free Kids.
“It’s one of those epidemics that has touched every social group and it’s why this bill is so important.”
Brix said many of her friends who vape have a hard time focusing in class. Students vape in the back of classrooms and she has experienced school restrooms closing because of student vaping. One friend shakes because he needs to vape at least once an hour. She said it’s scary to watch her friends go through the experience. So she used her platform within PTSA to fight the widespread trend.
“It’s one of those epidemics that has touched every social group and it’s why this bill is so important,” Brix said.
Nick Fradkin at the Department of Health said an adolescent brain is more vulnerable to nicotine addiction because the regions that control impulses, decision making and sensation seeking develop and change until the age of 25 or 26.
Fradkin is the department’s interim program manager for Tobacco and Vapor Product Prevention and Control. He said teenagers often rely on their social network, such as an 18-year-old senior or an older sibling, to get access to tobacco and vaping products. Prevention efforts are targeted to vaping products because the industry has grown so much.
“I think it’s a response to the more urgent need to address something that’s an epidemic,” Fradkin said. “A sign of the times, if you will.”
Julie Peterson, senior director of policy at the Foundation for Healthy Generations, said the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey shows the dramatic rise of vape use among youth in just two years.
“The survey should ring some alarm bells and that’s why I believe this is such an amazing piece of public health legislation,” Peterson said. “It will really cut off the biggest pipeline access from older peers and students. It’s about availability and opportunity and that’s what this bill does.”
Inslee said Washington joins more than 400 cities have raised the purchasing age for these products.
“This is a policy that will save lives,” Inslee said. “I’m very proud that Washington state is taking this important step forward.”
If you want to become a tobacco prevention representative, contact Tobacco Free Kids. If youth or young adults in Washington want help quitting tobacco or vapor products, they can use the following free programs:
- Telephone counseling: Call 1–800–QUIT–NOW to quit tobacco and/or vapor products.
- To quit vapor products, text “QUIT” to 202–804–9884, courtesy of Truth Initiative.
- To quit tobacco products, text “TEEN” to 47848 to access SmokefreeTeen.
If you are an educator, parent, guardian or someone who works with youth, you can use the following: