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Health advocates, leaders urging Wash. state lawmakers to raise legal smoking age to 21

Advocates are urging state lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 6048 which would raise the legal smoking age to 21. (Photo: KOMO News){ }

OLYMPIA, Wash. (KOMO) - Washington could become the sixth state to raise the minimum smoking age to 21.

Advocates rallied at the Capitol campus on Tuesday, hoping to sway lawmakers to pass 'T-21' Senate Bill 6048.

Each day about 40 kids in Washington start smoking according to the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

"40 kids. When I think about that statistic I think about my daughter,' said Mary McHale, the Network's State Government Relations Director.

McHale started smoking at 13, after a teammate offered a cigarette, but gave it up cold turkey 12 years later when she became a mother.

McHale wanted to be a good example and couldn't ignore the sobering statistics about teens and smoking.

The mom-turned-anti-smoking advocate said if current smoking rates don't change, more than 100,000 kids alive today will die early from tobacco-related illnesses in Washington.

"When you look at stats and see 90 percent of adult smokers pick up the habit before age of 18, and 95 percent of adult smokers before the age of 21, it becomes clear we need to raise the age to 21," said McHale.

That's why the American Cancer Society, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, some student groups, and some state leaders, including the Washington Secretary of Health are calling on state lawmakers to raise the smoking age in Washington from 18 to 21; that goes for tobacco, and e-cigarettes.

During a recent House Committee hearing on the SB 6048, Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) introduced the bipartisan measure.

"3,900 Washington minors become regular smokers each year. One in three will die as a result of their addiction," said Sen. Kuderer.

Washington's Secretary of Health calls T-21 his number one priority in 2018.

"This is really to keep tobacco out of our high schools and keep our kids free from a lifetime of addiction," said Sec. John Wiesman.

The Secretary told the House Committee members that too, during a recent hearing on the measure.

He told KOMO a National Academy of Medicine report is key when considering the legislation. He said the report found raising the age limit would translate into a 25 percent decrease in tobacco use among 15 to 17 year olds.

Former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna also supported the bill and told lawmakers no bill in Olympia will save more lives than T-21.

But some opponents, including one who said he wanted to see cigarettes kept out of the hands of minors, insisted there has to be a better way and pointed to projected state revenue loss and the impact passage would have on retail.

"The small convenient store will not only lose out on tobacco sales, but also other products they are in there to purchase," testified Mark Johnson with the Washington Retail Association.

Others who asked lawmakers not to support the legislation suggested that a minimum smoking age should be a national standard left to the FDA.

Larry Stewart, Executive Director of Association of Neighborhood Stores, told the committee if 18 year olds can join the military, why not decide for themselves if they want to smoke.

"The proposal would increase the age of adulthood for tobacco sales while leaving 18 as the age of adulthood for most other purposes, service in armed forces, they can vote, pay taxes," said Stewart.

"There are many things we don't allow 18 year olds to do, even though they can vote, whether it's not allowing them to gamble or drink," countered the Secretary of Health when KOMO asked him about the 18 as the age of adulthood argument.

Secretary Wiesman insisted the legislation would save lives, and said tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in our state. He said passing the measure could also reduce the amount of tobacco in high schools.

"It's something I'm really passionate about," said Richfield High School junior Madison Langer.

She is one of dozens of youth who made their way to Olympia to meet with lawmakers to ask for their vote for T-21.

Langer insists peer pressure to smoke is all around her, including at school, where she said it's not uncommon for younger classmates to ask older students to buy them cigarettes.

"You are at a party with friends, in a car, or someone offers you one and casually, you're not thinking too much," said Langer.

She said she wised up to smoking dangers, thanks to her mother who works in substance abuse prevention in Clark County.

When she meets with lawmakers she said she mostly listens, but if she could tell them one thing, it would be this, "It's such a casual thing until all of the sudden it's not."

Oregon just passed a similar measure, following Hawaii, California, New Jersey, and Maine.

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