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Raising Oregon Smoking Age to 21 Has Bipartisan Support

The American Cancer Society, OHSU and others concerned about stamping out early addiction to carcinogenic tobacco took the first day of the legislative session to renew their push to increase the legal age of tobacco to the same age as alcohol and marijuana.
February 1, 2017

Public health advocates kicked off the 2017 Oregon Legislative session with a bipartisan appeal to raise the legal age to buy or possess tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, a family practice physician at Oregon Health & Science University, is the leader behind the effort, which has the backing of her employer and the American Cancer Society. She previously introduced legislation to increase the smoking age in 2015, but the bill died in committee.

The rookie Republican legislator from Wilsonville, Rep. Rich Vial, also signed on as a chief sponsor of the bill, even as he told reporters he generally preferred smaller government and opposed a so-called “nanny state”: “To me, this is much like seat belts and child restraints, things that really improve society,” he said.

The bill would apply to traditional cigarettes and electronic cigarettes, as well as cigars, loose leaf tobacco and snuff. Oregon would become just the third state to raise the smoking age to 21, after Hawai’i and California.

Unlike Hawaii’s law, the proposed legislation would enact civil penalties, not criminal penalties for selling cigarettes to those under 21, and people underage would not be subject to arrest although their tobacco could be confiscated. “There should be no interaction with the criminal justice system,” said Steiner Hayward, hoping to avoid opposition from some quarters to giving law enforcement a new opportunity to stop residents, particularly racial minorities.

While states started raising the tobacco age just last year, New York City had already raised its smoking age, as had more than 100 counties and towns across the country. Ten years after Needham, Mass., raised its smoking age in 2005, the town reported adult smoking rates that were half that of the rest of the state.

Dr. Brian Druker, the director of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, said that one-third of all cancers are caused by smoking, resulting in 200,000 deaths nationally and 6,000 deaths a year in Oregon. “We know that a critical period of time when young people get addicted to nicotine products is that 18- to 21-year age group,” said Druker.

Raising the age to 21 would also put the product further out-of-reach for high school students, as many high-school seniors can purchase cigarettes legally and often share them with their underclass peers.

Tobacco companies, convenience store lobbyists and the e-cigarette industry are likely to oppose raising the age to 21 and denying the youngest adults access to their products, but Steiner Hayward said that at least one major chain and one major tobacco company had agreed to remain neutral on the bill.

She said she chose 21 to make it conform with the legal age for two other adult substances -- alcohol and marijuana. “Our society has made the decision to set the age for these adult products at 21,” she said.

Although Vial has stepped into offer Republican support, the bill is likely to encounter resistance from some members of his party who believe that people old enough to vote and serve in the military should be able to smoke.

Steiner Hayward has been a top critic of the tobacco industry since she entered the Legislature in 2012, winning regulation of e-cigarettes and pushing for tobacco retailers to be licensed, which she believes would make them less likely to sell to minors.

A licensure program has died twice, but she said Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, a retired nurse and the chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, would be re-introducing the bill.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].