Bipartisan bill gets its debut on first day of 2017 session, thanks to two Washington County legislators.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: PARIS ACHEN - Rep. Richard Vial, R-Scholls, announces that he will co-sponsor legislation to raise the legal smoking age to 21 during a news conference Wednesday at the State Capitol in Salem.SALEM — Two Washington County legislators are reintroducing legislation this week that would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.

The proposal by Beaverton Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward and Hillsboro-area state Rep. Richard Vial is intended to limit teenagers access to tobacco.

"As a family physician, I always think it's better to prevent disease than to cure it, and one of the best things we can do in Oregon to prevent disease is to stop people from using tobacco and other dangerous products that contain nicotine and other harmful substances," said Steiner Hayward, who has lost family members to smoking-related illnesses.

"I've seen the effects as a physician and as a family member all too well," she added. "Oregon deserves a better future than this."

While Steiner Hayward is a Democrat, Vial is a Republican.

Vial — a freshman whose district includes stretches from Hillsboro south to Sherwood and Wilsonville — is the House sponsor of the bill and spoke in support of the bill at the Capitol on Wednesday

"Often, those of us who are considered perhaps more conservative legislators hear that we don't want a nanny state, that we don't want overregulation of our lives, but to me this is very much like seatbelts and child restraints, those things that really do contribute to a society that we all feel good about," Vial said, who has lost family members to smoking.

Steiner Hayward co-chairs the budget-writing subcommittee on Human Services an said there is a fiscal argument to raising the smoking age.

"The cost in lives and lost productivity and children's wellness is inestimable," Steiner Hayward said. "This bill is personal, too. I lost my father, my father-in-law and one of my beloved aunts to smoking-related illnesses. I've seen the effects as a physician and as a family member all too well. Oregon deserves a better future than this."

Recent research, including some from the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, shows that brains of people younger than 26 are more susceptible to addiction.

"If you don't start smoking by age 21, you are less likely ever to start," said Noe Baker, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, one of 20 organizations campaigning for the law change.

The legislation would impose first-time civil penalties of $50 for clerks and $500 for managers who sell to minors. People of legal age who give tobacco to minors would likely face similar penalties as store clerks, Steiner Hayward said.

"We made a conscious decision not have criminal penalties because we know that tobacco companies tend to target low-income communities who can least afford it," Steiner Hayward said. "We know many of the clerks working in stores are working hard to support their families or making extra money while getting an education, and we didn't want to unduly punish them, and we didn't want to give them criminal records."

In 2015, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to raise the smoking age to 21. California followed suit last year.

An additional 210 cities and counties, including New York City and Boston, have similar laws. No cities or counties in Oregon have raised the smoking age, but Lane County is currently considering such a proposal.

"It is sort of picking up at county levels, and we are hoping to bring it statewide," Baker said.

At the current smoking rate, 68,000 Oregon kids alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related disease, Friend said, quoting statistics from Tobacco Free Kids.

Oregonian households pay an estimated $780 a year for the medical care of smokers, Steiner Hayward added.

Oregon also loses an estimated $3 billion in lost productivity and health care costs per year from smoking-related disease, according to figures from Tobacco Free Kids.

Steiner Hayward said she thinks this year's legislation has better prospects than a former iteration proposed in 2015 as Senate Bill 732.

The 2015 bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee as other issues took priority. This year's bill has bipartisan support.

"While the bill has bipartisan support, taking 18- to 20-year-olds out of the legal market would result in an estimated loss in tobacco tax revenue of $1.6 million every two years, according to an initial projection by the Legislative Revenue Office.

An increase in the tobacco tax proposed by Gov. Kate Brown could offset some that loss, but any revenue rollback could get a critical eye in light of the state's nearly $1.8 billion revenue shortfall for 2017-19."

Steiner Hayward has seats on both the Senate Health Care Committee and the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which could help advance the legislation to the Senate floor.

The health committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 in Hearing Room B at the State Capitol, 900 Court St. N.E. in Salem.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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