The legal age to purchase tobacco products will increase from 18 to 21 after Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed the Prohibition Against Selling Tobacco Products to Individuals Under 21 Amendment Act on Nov. 29.
The legislation, initially introduced in 2015 by Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), along with former Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large), prohibits the sale of tobacco to anyone under 21.
Bowser also signed a bill Nov. 18 banning the use of electronic cigarettes inside public establishments including bars, restaurants and workplaces and another bill Nov. 29 prohibiting smoking and smokeless tobacco from sporting events.
The bills must now submit to a 30-day congressional review period in accordance with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973. Unless they are rejected by a joint resolution in Congress, the bills will take effect next year.
According to a D.C. Committee on Health and Human Services Report presented by Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who serves as the committee’s chair, the bill aims to combat nicotine addiction in the District, which suffers from some of the highest rates of tobacco use among high schoolers in the nation.
Nearly 12.5 percent of D.C. high schoolers smoke cigarettes, making the District fourth out of 44 reporting states in high school tobacco usage. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2015 that 35 percent of District high schoolers have used electronic cigarettes at least once and 13 percent use them regularly.
The bill nevertheless encountered opposition from Councilmembers David Grosso (I-At Large), Phil Mendelson (D-Ward 4) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who all voted against the legislation.
Grosso’s Communication Director Matt Nocella said although the councilmember supported the public health goals of discouraging tobacco use, Grosso worried this legislation would increase youth encounters with the justice system and exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Surely there must be a better way to curb youth tobacco use than to rely on our police force to stop our young people and issue citations,” Nocella wrote in an email to The Hoya. “[Grosso] believes we must work to educate our youth on the harms of smoking and put the onus on those who sell or distribute tobacco products to young people.”
Henry Callander (COL ’18), who helped spearhead the campaign for a smoke-free campus that was put to a vote in yesterday’s Georgetown University Student Association referendum, said the new age for purchasing tobacco could drastically cut nicotine addiction in the District considering 90 percent of all tobacco users start before the age of 21.
“I think that limiting that age to 21 would significantly affect all college students and all people of that age group in a positive way,” Callander said.
Callander also emphasized the disparity in the harm caused by tobacco use and alcohol consumption. The consumption of alcohol was already legally restrained to those 21 or older despite causing fewer annual deaths than tobacco. The World Health Organization currently estimates 6 million people globally die from tobacco use each year, compared to 2.5 million from alcohol-related harm.
“Tobacco use is more harmful or, at least, on the same level as alcohol,” Callander said. “So the fact that you have to be 21 to get tobacco now, I think it makes sense completely.”