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House passes Tobacco 21 bill

The House passed a bill off the floor Wednesday that would raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and vapor products in Washington from 18 to 21. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Harris, was one of the first two bills voted out of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee this session.

Harris, who first introduced a bill aimed at curbing tobacco and vaping for young adults in 2016, argued that his bill would save lives and money in his remarks on the floor.

“I believe in statistics, and I’m a word guy. I also believe in science,” Harris said. “And I really believe that it’s proven that, if we can keep young adults from smoking before the age of 21, 95 percent will never smoke. Think about that. Ninety-five percent will never pick up a cigarette.”

In a recent Q&A with the Wire, Harris predicted that his “Tobacco 21” bill would pass this year, and that he would have between 12 and 16 fellow Republican members vote yes. His prediction was correct: The final vote was 66-30, and 12 of the yes votes came from Republicans.

Rep. Michelle Caldier is one of the Republican representatives who testified and voted against the bill. Her argument and others’ focused on personal freedoms.

“In our state, at age 13 you can consent to an abortion without parental consent,” Caldier said in her remarks. “You can choose to deny mental health treatment at the age of 13. At the age of 18, you can fight and die for our country. You can get a life sentence in prison. You can file for bankruptcy. You can go through a divorce. And I’m not saying that choosing tobacco is a good choice. However, at some point, we have to say: At what age are we going to allow people to make choices? Whether they’re good, or whether they’re bad. At what age is somebody an adult?”

Harris’s Tobacco 21 bill from the last biennium passed the House last year, but stalled in the Senate. In that vote, 19 yes votes came from Republicans.

Harris said Rep. Richard DeBolt, who voted yes on the bill last year, would’ve been another “yes” vote from his side of the aisle were he present today. DeBolt was one of two excused representatives. The other, Rep. Dan Griffey, voted against the bill last year. But Harris also said he probably would’ve voted yes this time around.

Harris credits the rest of the missing R votes to lawmakers who are new to the chamber, who he thinks were being cautious in voting against the bill.

“I think you’ve got to know your district really well, and you’ve got to feel comfortable with it,” Harris said after the vote. “‘No’ is the easiest, safest vote, always. I get that, and that’s alright. The bill passed easily. I’m very, very thankful for the numbers and the way it turned out, and I believe the bill will continue to move.”

One of the freshmen he’s referring to, Rep. Jenny Graham, said during debate that she wasn’t voting for Harris’s bill because it doesn’t “have teeth.”

The bill is aimed at sellers of tobacco and vaping products only, and doesn’t put in place any consequences for people under 21 who buy or possess the products.

Harris said he’s tried that approach in the past, but that it hasn’t worked out.

“To be quite frank, I wanted a stronger bill,” Harris said. “I tried a stronger bill my first year. But this is the bite out of the apple I know I could get. Will I come back and revisit it, maybe in a couple years? I think I might, if I need to have a stronger bill, if this isn’t doing what we think. But this is a great first step.”

The bill now moves to the Senate, where a similar bill is currently in the Ways & Means Committee.

To get the bill through the Senate, Harris said he won’t consider any compromises that resemble a striker amendment from Rep. Joe Schmick that the House voted down today. It would’ve raised the age to 19 instead of 21.

“All this does is that it moves the age from the current level of 18 to the age of 19,” Schmick said in debate. “And the reason for it is, simply, tobacco still is a legal product in this country. And, by having it at age 19, it takes vaping products and tobacco more out of the high schools.”

In the debate, Rep. Tina Orwall argued against Schmick’s amendment. She said that raising the age to 19 would not limit high schoolers’ access to the products.

“We know that about 60 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds are approached to buy products for younger kids,” Orwall said. “One in five students have used a vape product in the last 30 days. Peers ask peers. And a 19-year-old is still a peer to an 18-year-old. A 21-year-old is a much bigger stretch. That’s not their peer group. And so, the concern is that unless we go to 21, we still have a lot of high school kids who have access through texting and contact to have people buy these products.”

In committee, Schmick had also expressed concern that Indian tribes would not also raise the legal age of sale. The bill permits the Governor’s office to consult with Indian tribes regarding raising the age, and requires the office to report to the Legislature on those consultations by December 2020 — the bill itself would go into effect on January 1, 2020.

This article was cross-posted at our sister site, State of Reform.