Washington state attorney general calls for raising smoking age to 21

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is pushing a proposal that would make his state the first in the country to raise the legal smoking age to 21.

Most other states set their legal smoking age at 18. Four states -- Utah, New Jersey, Alabama and Alaska -- and Washington, D.C., require tobacco users to be 19 or older.

But none have gone so far as to make it the same as the legal drinking age. In an announcement on Wednesday, Ferguson cited health reasons for wanting to make 21 the legal age for buying and possessing tobacco and vapor products.

“Research shows the young adult brain, still developing between 18 and 21, is highly susceptible to nicotine addiction," Feguson said. "We must do more to protect our youth from tobacco’s grip, and this bill is an important step toward keeping nicotine out of the hands of kids and young adults.”

According to Feguson's statement, smoking kills 8,300 Washingtonians every year, and $2.8 billion in health care costs are directly attributed to tobacco use in the state. Washington state taxpayers pay nearly $400 million in taxes to cover state government costs caused by smoking, his office said.

State lawmakers are introducing legislation at the attorney general's request. Ferguson and the legislative sponsors said the bills were inspired by the effectiveness of indoor smoking bans in several cities nationwide. The first city to do so, Needham, Mass., in 2005, saw a drop of more than 50 percent in its high-school smoking rate by 2012, Ferguson said.

Dozens of cities and counties have followed suit, including New York City and Hawaii County, which encompasses the "Big Island" of its state. However, bills to make the smoking age 21 failed in the last two years in New Jersey, Utah and Colorado.

Officials in Washington state cited several studies showing most adult smokers started as teenagers.

"By restricting use during youth we hope to break this cycle of addiction," said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the lead House sponsor of the bill in that chamber.

The House version of Ferguson's bill has been referred to the Health Care and Wellness Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, a co-sponsor of the bill. State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, lead sponsor of an identical Senate bill, said he expects a tough, possibly multi-year fight getting the change through the Capitol.

If the change passed, it would cost state government an estimated $20 million a year in tobacco-tax revenues, Ferguson said. Since tobacco's health effects are largely long-term, any savings to the state's healthcare system from reducing the number of people who take up smoking would take decades to add up. State government spends a fluctuating amount of money each year to fight tobacco use, particularly among teenagers, from tens of millions of dollars when the national tobacco lawsuit settlements of the 1990s flowed into state coffers to no money at all in 2011 after recession-era shortfalls cut available funds.

Last year, the state spent $3 million on the cause, which is $40 million short of what a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study recommended for an adequate effort, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said.

"We obviously don't have that money," Wiesman said, calling the proposal a "fiscally conservative approach to that issue."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.