Hike in legal purchase age drops teen smoking rates, experts tell Board of Commissioners

September 14, 2016

State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward asks county board to raise legal age for tobacco purchase.

Teen smoking dropped 12 percent in jurisdictions which raised the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, according to a report released last year by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science.  

That year Hawaii became the first state to set 21 as the legal limit statewide. This year California followed suit. More than 100 local governments across the county, including 11 counties, have raised their limits; most of them in the past three years. That means nearly one-in-five people in the U.S. live in a place where they have to be at least 21 to purchase tobacco products.

Multnomah County could join their ranks if the Oregon Legislature or Board of Commissioners decide to change the law.

“Any step that we take to raise the legal age is a good step,” said state Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland), who spoke to Commissioners Tuesday during a briefing on the potential change. “This is my top priority for the 2017 session. I have bipartisan sponsorship on the bill. We’re working to engage stakeholders.”

She encouraged the county to show the way.

“The City of Portland passed sick leave and that helped us pass it statewide,” she said. “I encourage the county to look at this very hard.”

Multnomah County has one of the nation’s highest rates of illegal tobacco sales to minors. Last year the Board tightened regulations of electronic cigarettes and vaping. This year it began requiring businesses that sell tobacco and vaping products to obtain a license, which allows inspectors to make sure clerks aren’t selling to teens under 18.

“We all know that when children have easy to tobacco, they get hooked,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “So anything we can do to help the state in its efforts to make our children more healthy, is a good step forward. And I look forward to continuing this conversation.”

Youth smoking rates had been on the decline, the county’s Deputy Health Director, Dr. Jennifer Vines, told the Board Tuesday. “But we still have some concerning numbers,” she said. By 11th grade, one-in-five teens reports using tobacco.

Most teens who aren’t 18 get their smokes from friends who already are, Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas told the board during the presentation Tuesday.

Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas (right) and Deputy Health Director Dr. Jennifer Vines brief the Board of Commissioners Tuesday on teen smoking rates.
Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas (right) and Deputy Health Director Dr. Jennifer Vines brief the Board of Commissioners Tuesday on teen smoking rates.

“By raising the minimum legal age it would mean those who can legally obtain tobacco are less likely to be in the same social networks,” she said. “It would be another tool as we continue to implement the licensing program, consistent with other laws on the books.”

Commissioner Jules Bailey, who sponsored the briefing, said the county serves many clients who suffer from lifelong effects of tobacco use. And that’s a cost that weights on its publicly-funded healthcare system.

“It is not a stretch to say we are literally paying for a smoking age of 18 right out of the taxpayer dime,” he said. “So it’s good for public health. It’s good for children. It’s the right thing to do. But from a bottom line perspective, we internalize the cost of tobacco use and the downstream effects that causes. This is a fiscally responsible measure we can take to protect the public dime.”