WASHINGTON STATE SHOULD REFRAIN FROM RAISING TOBACCO AGE TO 21

January 23, 2019

KEY POINTS: 

  • Proposals in the House and Senate are intended to protect youth health, in reality such legislation limits individual freedom, fails to curb tobacco consumption, and ignores public health gains e-cigarettes provide.

  • Similar measures have been less than effective. In the 2018 Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted more than 53 percent of 12th graders and more than 37 percent of 10th graders reported consuming alcohol in the past year.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 90 percent of tobacco users started smoking before age 18.

  • A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study found that 86 percent of youths aged “15 to 17 years old obtained cigarettes by asking someone else,” and 89 percent relied on these sources for e-cigarettes.

    • These so-called social sources include siblings, friends, parents, and even strangers.

  • Washington state currently uses very little revenues from tobacco taxes and settlement payments on tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.

  • Washington state continues to reduce funding to combat tobacco use.

    • In 2000, Washington spent $15 million on tobacco control programs.

    • In 2018, the state spent $1.4 million.

    • For fiscal year 2019, Washington will spent $1.5 million on tobacco control programs, which is 2.4 percent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation.

  • Evergreen State residents and lawmakers should note that all tax revenue received from the sale of tobacco products is automatically distributed into Washington state’s general fund, which is mostly spent on education and other social programs.

Evergreen State lawmakers are considering increasing the age to purchase and possess tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21 years of age. Although the proposals in the House and Senate are intended to protect youth health, in reality such legislation limits individual freedom, fails to curb tobacco consumption, and ignores public health gains e-cigarettes provide. If Washington state lawmakers truly want to reduce the health hazards of smoking, they should reform how they currently spend tobacco funds, rather than restrict adults’ choices.

Although the goal of legislation that raises the age to purchase tobacco is to curb youth tobacco consumption, similar measures have been less than effective. In the 2018 Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted more than 53 percent of 12th graders and more than 37 percent of 10th graders reported consuming alcohol in the past year.

The legal age for purchasing and consuming alcohol in Washington state is 21, with a $500 fine for underage persons found guilty of possessing alcohol. Should someone under 21 attempt to purchase alcohol, they can be fined as much as $1,000. Unlike deterrents to prevent youth alcohol consumption, the tobacco 21 proposal does not enforce a penalty on individuals aged 18-20, creating an inconsistency in the legislation. Moreover, the current fine of $50 for persons under the age of 18 in possession of tobacco products does not provide a strong penalty to deter youth consumption.

The legislation also fails to take into account the role social sources play in helping youth obtain age restricted products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 90 percent of tobacco users started smoking before age 18. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study found that 86 percent of youths aged “15 to 17 years old obtained cigarettes by asking someone else,” and 89 percent relied on these sources for e-cigarettes. These so-called social sources include siblings, friends, parents, and even strangers. As indicated by the aforementioned 53 percent of 12th graders consuming alcohol, youth are able to already find social sources to help provide them with products restricted to persons 21 years and older and will continue to rely on these sources for tobacco products.

More troublesome is that Washington state currently uses very little revenues from tobacco taxes and settlement payments on tobacco prevention and cessation efforts. In 2017, Washington received $151 million in tobacco settlement payouts, as well as $377.9 million in cigarette tax revenue. The state distributed only $640,000, or less than two percent of the funding received, into the Youth Tobacco Prevention Account in the same year.

Even worse, Washington state continues to reduce funding to combat tobacco use. In 2000, Washington spent $15 million on tobacco control programs. In 2018, the state spent $1.4 million. For fiscal year 2019, Washington will spent $1.5 million on tobacco control programs, which is 2.4 percent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation.

Evergreen State residents and lawmakers should note that all tax revenue received from the sale of tobacco products is automatically distributed into Washington state’s general fund, which is mostly spent on education and other social programs. In fact, prior to July 1, 2009, Washington’s “health services account received one-half of [tobacco] tax revenues.” Tobacco settlement moneys received are also deposited into the state’s general fund, with none being allocated for cessation and prevention efforts despite the 1998’s settlement’s intention “to help reimburse the states for Medicaid costs caused by tobacco.”

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the misguided bills is the inclusion of vaping devices and electronic cigarettes, or tobacco harm reduction (THR) products. Unfortunately, the proposals treat THR products in the same fashion as combustible cigarettes, though policymakers should refrain from such synchronization. Research increasingly shows tobacco products exist on a continuum of harm, with THR products being significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

Public health bodies such as Public Health England, the Royal College of Physicians, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have found electronic cigarettes to be less dangerous than combustible cigarettes. In fact, some public health organizations have even advocated the use of THR products.

Rather than limiting personal choices, Washington state should reform how it currently uses tobacco funds and provide more money for education and cessation efforts. Policymakers should also examine the potential health benefits of THR products and move to regulate these products among a continuum of harm.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute or Tobacco Harm Reduction 101.

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