Here’s a somber statistic: Each day, roughly 40 Washington kids become new daily smokers, starting a lifetime of deadly addiction. Unless current smoking rates decline, 104,000 Washington kids alive today will die early from tobacco-related illnesses.
Our lawmakers can take action now to save children’s lives. The Washington attorney general, the Washington secretary of Health and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, along with other public health organizations and leaders, urge the Legislature to raise the age of sale for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to 21. This common-sense action would help curb tobacco use and save lives.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death, claiming the lives of more than 8,000 Washingtonians yearly and causing roughly 27 percent of all cancer deaths in the state. Tobacco use is also financially destructive, costing Washington about $5 billion annually in health care costs and lost worker productivity. Each household pays $789 in taxes to cover tobacco-related expenditures, even if they are not tobacco users.
Increasing the tobacco sales age would help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often get these products from older classmates. The latest data show almost 8 percent of Washington high schoolers smoke cigarettes, and an alarming 18 percent of them use e-cigarettes.
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The tobacco industry targets young adults ages 18 to 21 because it’s a critical age for solidifying tobacco addiction. Big Tobacco spends roughly $88 million each year in Washington to aggressively market their products to hook future generations. In contrast, Washington spends just $640,000 on tobacco prevention and cessation efforts. The state must also significantly increase funding for its tobacco control programs to meet the recommended level by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2015 report from the prestigious National Academy of Medicine estimates that raising the national legal age of sale for tobacco products to 21 could reduce smoking rates among 15-17-year-olds by 25 percent. Overall, the report predicts raising the sale age would cut smoking rates by 12 percent and smoking-related death by nearly 10 percent.
Washingtonians strongly support protecting children from tobacco. According to a 2015 Elway Research poll, an overwhelming 65 percent of Washingtonians support raising the tobacco sales age to 21.
The poll showed strong support among men and women in every region of the state. Support for raising the sale age to 21 in Eastern Washington (66 percent) was similar to support in Western Washington (70 percent). The poll found strong bipartisan support with 66 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats supporting the change.
Washington state could join California and Hawaii in passing this law statewide. Many other states, counties and cities are also considering these measures.
Raising the tobacco sales age to 21 will save lives, reduce health care costs, fight addiction and move us toward a tobacco-free generation.
Bob Ferguson is the Washington Attorney General; John Wiesman is the Washington Secretary of Health; and Mary McHale is Washington government relations director, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network