Staff Editorial: Tobacco age limit poses dilemma for tribes

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The Washington State Legislature recently passed a bill that would raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes, other tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vape products to 21. Governor Jay Inslee signed this bill into law on April 5. Inslee, now a candidate for president of the United States of America, pointed out during the signing ceremony that 95 percent of smokers start their habit prior to turning 21. He claims this bill will save thousands of lives in our state.

We join 10 other states – Arkansas, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine, Utah and Virginia – that have raised the age to 21. Washington, D.C. has raised its age to 21, as have a number of other major cities such as San Antonio, Cleveland, Minneapolis and New York City. These efforts have been strongly supported by a number of organizations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

Almost everyone, even tobacco users themselves, are well aware of the risks of smoking cigarettes or putting a pinch of snuff between their lips and gums. We have all seen the public service announcements on television. We have heard of movie stars and rock stars who have succumbed to lung cancer because of smoking. We have heard of professional athletes who have died of cancer caused by chewing tobacco, such as legendary baseball star Tony Gwynn, who had a stellar career with the San Diego Padres.

It looks like a lot of people and advocacy groups agree that teenagers using tobacco is a bad idea. But what about Indian tribes in our state? As sovereign nations, they are exempt from following certain state laws. Ever notice how much cigarette smoke is in a typical tribal casino? Even though our state, by a vote of the people, banned smoking in bars, restaurants and bowling alleys years ago, that law does not apply to tribes. This will be one more law that tribes can follow or ignore.

The legal age for casino gambling in our state is 18. Tribal casinos can set their own policy and exclude those between the ages of 18 and 20. Tribal casino gambling is expanding, as evident by the recent news of the Muckleshoot Tribe, which will add 10,000 square feet of gaming space in their facility in Auburn. Puyallup Tribe is also building a mega-casino in Tacoma that will replace the current Emerald Queen Casino. What will happen if increased competition for gambling dollars occurs in the South Sound? Would any tribal casinos decide to start allowing those between the ages of 18 and 20 to hit the blackjack tables, the roulette wheels or the video slot machines? If tribes can sell tobacco to teenagers, what is to stop them from gambling?

Tribes can choose to continue to sell tobacco to 18-year olds, but will they face any criticism from those organizations that pushed hard to raise the legal age to 21? Will they let the tribes have a pass on this, or will they use their well-funded public relations teams to shame them into following the new age limit?

Tribes seem to make their owns rules and call their own shots in many ways. Will they do the right thing and comply with the new state law? Or will the opportunity to get a new generation hooked on this vice be too good to pass up? Will the lust for profit prevail? Only time will tell.

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