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Raise smoking age to 21 to save lives

Tobacco addiction is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Washington, causing about 8,300 residents to die each year. Annual health costs now surpass $2.8 billion.

The best way to combat this crisis is to raise the legal smoking age to 21, as the Washington State Legislature is considering with SHB 1458. Attorney General Bob Ferguson requested the bill, and science supports his efforts.

A new Institute of Medicine of the National Academies study found that 90 percent of smokers report using cigarettes before the age of 19.

Even though the most recent King County Healthy Youth Survey showed teen cigarette and alcohol use is on the decline, e-cigarette use is on the rise. Unfortunately, e-cigarettes often contain nicotine, too.

Since 2012 sophomores report a 12.2 percent increase in vaping or e-cigarette use. For seniors, the increase is 18.7 percent.

Even though the use of regular cigarettes has dropped since 2008 by 7.3 percent for sophomores and 8.3 percent for seniors, we need to help them choose not to use tobacco products of any kind.

Preventing cigarette use at least until the age of 21 is most effective in stopping young adults from developing a long-term, damaging habit.

Several schools and local jurisdictions, including New York City, that have raised the legal age to 21 have been able to cut youth smoking rates by as much as 50 percent.

This change would help greatly reduce the risk of countless people needlessly suffering from heart disease, cancer and strokes, among other problems.

The adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. Teens will always find a way to rebel and experiment with these vices, but that does not alleviate the need for state officials to solve a major public-health crisis.

Washington already bans alcohol and marijuana use until the age of 21. Extend that rule to tobacco products, including cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

SHB 1458 recently passed the state House Health Care and Wellness Committee by a vote of 12-3. It’s now in the House Finance Committee.

This Legislature should approve this measure to save lives.

By Seattle Times editorial board, with additions from Issaquah Press and SnoValley Star staffs.

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