Bill looks to raise Oregon's smoking age to 21

Lawmakers will consider a bill this year that will raise the smoking age in Oregon to 21 years old.

Supporters of the Tobacco 21 bill, including Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward and OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Director Dr. Brian Druker, held a news conference in the Capitol's press room at the start of the 2017 legislative session.

"I am proud to continue working towards making Oregon the healthiest state in the nation by chief sponsoring Tobacco 21,” Steiner Hayward said. “This is good for individuals' well-being and good for our state overall."

Steiner Hayward has sponsored other smoking-related bills, including one that restricted the sale of vape pens to minors and another that banned smoking in cars while children are present.

In its recent “State of Tobacco Control” report, the American Lung Association found that more than 17 percent of Oregonians currently smoke. The association gave Oregon poor grades in several areas, including the state’s minimum smoking age and having a cigarette tax below the national average. (Read: State of Tobacco Control 2017, Oregon State Highlights)

Officials said 5,500 Oregonians die every year from tobacco-related illnesses. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that each year roughly 1,800 kids start smoking before reaching the current legal smoking age of 18 years old.

Studies show that raising the smoking age to 21 will have an impact on young smokers, who often turn to older classmates in high school as sources for tobacco products.

“If you can delay the start of a tobacco habit by even a few years, fewer young people will become addicted to tobacco, which means fewer cancer patients in the future,” Dr. Druker said.

David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, which owns tobacco companies like Philip Morris USA, said in a statement to KATU that this issue would be better handled by Congress.

"We support a minimum age of 18 for the sale of all tobacco products, as established in the federal Tobacco Control Act of 2009. That statute sets the national minimum age at 18, and required the FDA to study the public health implications of increasing the minimum age," he wrote. "This is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it. The Institute of Medicine produced a report for the FDA about increasing the minimum age-of-purchase for tobacco products. FDA has shared its findings with Congress and we are closely following the process.

"We believe states and localities should defer to this process and give Congress the opportunity to evaluate this issue before enacting different minimum age laws."

Several people at Wednesday’s event said for them this issue was personal.

“I lost my dad to lung cancer in 2004, and my dad began smoking as a just turned 18-year-old in the service,” said Kay Graven, who supports the new age restriction. “He was handed his first cigarette from a superior officer, and told that if he didn’t smoke it he didn’t get a break, and he became addicted to cigarettes as many do.”

Under Oregon’s proposal, a clerk selling tobacco to someone under 21 would face a $50 fine. The manager or owner of a store that did so would face a $500 fine.

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