With Attorney General Bob Ferguson, dozens of students, legislators and local health leaders there to bear witness, Gov. Jay Inslee signed HB 1074 into law on April 5, raising the legal age to buy tobacco and vaping products from 18 years of age to 21 statewide. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Washington is now the seventh state to raise the tobacco sales age to 21, joining California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon.
From that point on, as stated in the legislation: “Aperson who sells or gives, or permits to be sold or given, to any person under the age of 21 years any cigar, cigarette, cigarette paper or wrapper, tobacco in any form, or a vapor product is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”Enforcement will be in the hands of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.The penalty for youth in possession of tobacco or vape products remains the same: a $50 fine, four hours of community service, attendance at a tobacco education program, or a combination of these penalties.
“This is a policy that will save lives,” Inslee said at the signing. “I’m very proud that Washington State is taking this important step forward.”
While it is undoubtedly an important step forward, one that took five legislative sessions to achieve, there is one caveat: Native American owned smoke shops and convenience stores are exempt due to sovereign nation status. As some lawmakers were concerned that tribally owned smoke shops and convenience stores would continue selling to 18-year-olds despite the new state law, language was included in the bill that
Inslee would seek government-to-government consultations with local Indian tribes regarding raising the minimum legal age of sale. The new law states that the governor will report back to the appropriate committee no later than Dec. 1, 2020.
That Indian tribes sell cigarettes to anyone, especially their own people, is troubling to begin with. According to the Centers for Disease Control, American Indians/Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking compared to all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States.More American Indian/Alaska Native women smoke during their last three months of pregnancy: 26.0 percent compared to 14.3 percent of whites, 8.9 percent of African Americans, 3.4 percent of Hispanics, and 2.1 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders. American Indians/Alaska Natives also have a higher risk of experiencing tobacco-related disease and death due to high prevalence of cigarette smoking and other commercial tobacco use.
- Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaska Natives.
- Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among American Indians/Alaska Natives.
- Diabetes is the fourth leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaska Natives.The risk of developing diabetes is 30-40 percent higher for smokers than nonsmokers.
In Tacoma, the state reached a cigarette tax agreement with the Puyallup Tribe in 2005. As the only tribe in the state with smoke shops owned by individual tribal members, since then the tribal government and tribal members both have opened numerous smoke shops around town, in addition to the half-dozen or so Tahoma Markets convenience stores that are owned by the tribe. Known for already selling cigarettes at cheaper prices than their competitors, these places of business are poised to make an increased profit from tobacco and vape sales to 18, 19 and 20 year olds now that it’s illegal for these age groups to purchase such products anywhere else.
This begs the query of just how likely it is that Indian tribes will comply with the new age limit and thus say goodbye to a new stream of revenue. Tacoma Weekly reached out to Inslee’s office and received this statement: “The governor’s office worked with tribal governments on the bill. The tribes are committed to reducing tobacco use. The bill has language that commits the governor and tribes to work together on a mutually negotiated process. The governor’s office has great confidence that process will have productive results.”
Tacoma City Council member Robert Thoms said he would do anything he could to help the governor with negotiations. “I would encourage those conversations to start as soon as possible,” he said. “It would have been nice to have this dialog before passage of the legislation, but I would be happy to support such negotiations in our jurisdiction. If the governor want to come to our great city of Tacoma and talk to tribes, I would be more than happy as a Tacoma City Councilman to share my opinion on the value of having fewer citizens in our community smoke, especially youth.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), seemed not concerned about whether tribes would comply, as he is satisfied with the new legislation overall and said that he is looking forward to seeing tribes come on board as they have in other states that have passed similar legislation.
“The bill goes into effect the first of the year…and I’m hoping that we can work out some of these issues between now and then.”
Harris said that he anticipates about half of the tribes agreeing to sell tobacco and vape products only to those 21 and older, and he believes that Inslee will pursue the matter.
“I think he absolutely will. There is a great interest in tribes to fix the problems that they have also.”
The legislature’s Health and Wellness Committee Chair Eileen Cody (D-34thDistrict) said that she also is confident that tribes will raise the age limit.
“We can’t force them to comply, of course, but when we do something, the tribes usually work with us.”
Cody is pleased that the bill finally passed so that the state can do something tangible to help prevent youth from experimenting with tobacco. “The problem has been too easy for 14-17 years olds when 18 year olds can buy for them,” she said. “The more we can stop kids from smoking early, that will hopefully cut down on long-term smoking.”
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network was one of the lead patient advocacy organizations working on this issue for the past four years, along with its volunteer advocates. Mary McHale is the organization’s Washington Government Relations Director.
“This legislation will help keep tobacco products out of high schools, where it’s easy for young teens to get them from 18-year-old classmates, and it will help ensure that our youth can grow up healthier,” McHale said. “Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death and right now, too many Washington kids are becoming addicted during their vulnerable teen years.”
McHale said that the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network is well aware of tobacco addiction among Native Americans. “We look forward to working with Gov. Inslee and the tribes to see if we can help adopt this policy on tribal lands.”
At the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD), efforts continue to focus on raising the age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21. This is a top priority, according to Miae Aramori, program manager of physical activity, nutrition and tobacco prevention programs.
“This is one of reasons that we supported the legislature’s desire to raise the age. We know that 95 percent of smokers start before 21 and that you will likely become a lifetime user of nicotine. That’s a big concern.”
The financial costs nationally of youth smoking are astronomical: $1.8 billion lost in productivity annually from tobacco related illness and $2.8 billion in direct health care costs, for example.
“Nicotine illness related deaths are preventable,” Aramori said. “If folks start smoking at a later age, the chance of becoming a lifetime user is less likely.”
Youth brain development is another big concern, as those who start smoking under 21 years of age can experience setbacks in their career choices and health choices, leading to lifelong implications. These risks are compounded by tobacco and vape companies directly targeting youth in advertising.
“We know that the tobacco and vaping industries produces want to appeal to youth. The newer generation is vaping and using e-cigarettes. That’s why it’s important that ‘tobacco 21’ include vaping products. We have to do what we can to protect our young people, our most vulnerable. They are targeted with these new nicotine products.”
Tacoma Weekly reached out to the Puyallup Tribe, Nisqually and Muckleshoot but received no response.