A resolution that would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 nationwide was co-sponsored by a Republican congresswoman from Washington, a state that last month joined a growing list of individual states making the switch.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, quietly signed on to the Tobacco to 21 Act when it was introduced to the House floor by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Herrera Beutler was one of six original bipartisan co-sponsors, a group that’s since grown to 11 representatives.
The resolution, H.R. 2411, would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, including smoking and vaping products.
“Jaime supports this measure to curb the rise of cigarette-smoking and vaping among youth,” Angie Riesterer, Herrera Beutler’s communications director, wrote in an email. “Many (18)-year-olds are still in high school, with a high probability of passing on tobacco products to younger students and siblings.”
It’s a new position for Herrera Beutler, who in the past hasn’t been vocal one way or the other about raising the legal age for tobacco use nationwide. Riesterer said the congresswoman decided to co-sponsor the legislation based on new developments in the tobacco industry.
Vaping — in which a smokeless electronic cigarette heats a solution of nicotine and flavoring — is on the rise among young people, even as traditional cigarette use continues to drop. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in February that about 37 percent of high school seniors vaped last year, compared with 28 percent in 2017.
“Vaping and e-cigarette use among youth has exploded in recent years,” Riesterer wrote. “Jaime has heard from many Southwest Washington residents concerned about this issue, including a recent group of high schoolers who urged her to sponsor this legislation and help prevent premature illnesses and deaths among youth.”
Until now, individual states have relied on a piecemeal approach to tackle the issue.
State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, took the lead in Washington. In 2018, Harris, a cancer survivor, sponsored a bill raising the tobacco age to 21, which died in the state Senate. Last month, he had more success, ferrying a similar bill all the way to the governor’s desk.
On April 5, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the legislation, raising Washington’s smoking age to 21, effective Jan. 1, 2020. Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, Virginia, Delaware, Arkansas and Maryland (and Guam) already have age bumps on the books, while Utah is working on a similar law.
“A dozen states have already passed legislation to raise the age to 21, including here in Washington state where Rep. Paul Harris successfully championed the effort to take this life-saving step,” Riesterer wrote. “Our proposed federal legislation reinforces those states’ efforts to prevent youth from tobacco-related illnesses.”
Opponents of raising the smoking age point to other things 18-year-olds can do as legal adults with personal freedom — vote, get married, go off to war — and consider raising the legal tobacco age an overreach of the “nanny state.” Supporters point to the public health benefit of making tobacco use illegal among young adults. They also point out that the legal cap for alcohol (and marijuana in some states) is 21, not 18.
“While substantial gains have been made since 1964, tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, responsible for more than 480,000 premature deaths each year,” H.R. 2411 states. “National data show that about 94 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. The ages of 18 to 21 are a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to regular, daily use.”
After its April 30 introduction on the House floor, the Tobacco to 21 Act was referred back to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.