Research & Commentary: Washington State Should Refrain From Raising Tobacco Age to 21

Published January 23, 2019

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.


The following documents provide more information on tobacco harm reduction.

Vaping, E-Cigarettes, and Public Policy Toward Alternatives to Smoking
For decades, lawmakers and regulators have used taxes, bans, and burdensome regulations as part of their attempt to reduce the negative health effects of smoking. Recently, some have sought to extend those policies to electronic cigarettes. This booklet from The Heartland Institute urges policymakers to re-think that tax-and-regulate strategy. Policymakers should be mindful of the extensive research that supports tobacco harm reduction and understand bans, excessive regulations, and high taxes on e-cigarettes often encourage smokers to continue using more-harmful traditional cigarette products.

Research & Commentary: Washington State’s Tax Proposal Ignores E-Cigarettes’ Public Health Benefits–commentary-washington-states-tax-proposal-ignores-e-cigarettes-public-health-benefits
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud argues again legislation in Washington State imposing a 60 percent tax on vaping products. Stroud compares the tax to Pennsylvania’s 40 percent wholesale tax which closed over 120 vape shops in the Keystone State. Stroud notes that lawmakers should avoid creating burdensome taxes on tobacco harm reduction products, as these products offer a valuable alternative for millions of combustible tobacco cigarette smokers.

Research & Commentary: Study Finds ‘No Detectable Changes in Lung Health’ of E-Cigarette Users Who Have Never Smoked–commentary-study-finds-no-detectable-changes-in-lung-health-of-e-cigarette-users-who-have-never-smoked
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud discusses a 2017 study that examined health outcome differences between tobacco cigarette smokers and electronic cigarette users. Stroud says researchers “found no significant changes in any of the health outcomes investigated” and urges policymakers to promote the use of such products instead of imposing burdensome taxes and regulations.

Research & Commentary: Study Finds E-Cigarettes Would Prevent 6.6 Million Premature Deaths–commentary-study-finds-e-cigarettes-would-prevent-66-million-premature-deaths
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud examines an October 2017 Tobacco Control study that found electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) might help extend life for millions of people. The authors of the study found there was an estimated 6.6 million fewer deaths and more than 86 million fewer-life-years lost over a ten year period because of ENDS products. Stroud concludes the use of ENDS could also help improve the budgets of numerous state programs, including Medicaid.

Research & Commentary: Vaping Taxes and Bans Hurt Smokers Trying to Quit–commentary-vaping-taxes-and-bans-hurt-smokers-trying-to-quit
In this Research & Commentary,Heartland Institute Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Glans and State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud examine vaping bans and taxes and consider how such measures block or limit what is for many smokers an effective method for halting the use of tobacco cigarettes.


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. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, our Consumer Freedom Lounge,and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus, host an event in your state, or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lindsey Stroud, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at [email protected] or 757/354-8170.