THIS special legislative session, Washington state lawmakers have an opportunity to be public health heroes. By raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 we can save lives and money in Washington state.
This may sound familiar. We had the same opportunity last year before the Tobacco-21 bill died in the Legislature. It died because the state depends on the tax revenue from addicted teens to balance our state budget. There is universal agreement that changing the legal age for tobacco sales in Washington will save lives and reduce health-care costs. If approved, the estimated decrease in tax revenue over the next two years is $16.5 million, but not passing this legislation would be cruel and shortsighted.
Tobacco use disproportionally robs the wallets and health of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. In public health, we use the term health disparities to describe the preventable differences in health that occur between populations. Tobacco use is a sad example. In Clallam County, on the Olympic Peninsula, where I practice as a physician, our teens and pregnant women smoke at almost double the state average, leading to higher rates of infant mortality, pregnancy complications and lung cancer. Smoking during pregnancy is so common that the smell of cigarettes in the delivery room no longer surprises me.
Not surprisingly, the negative health effects of smoking are unfairly distributed. If you have less than a high school education, are nonwhite, or live in poorer parts of the state, your risk of smoking is dramatically higher. Raising the legal age to buy tobacco products will help narrow this health disparity and improve the chance our poorest citizens live long, healthy lives. We know this approach works. When Needham, Massachusetts, raised the legal age…