SALEM — Oregon is on its way to become the third state to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.
The House of Representatives on Thursday, July 6, passed a bill to increase the legal age.
The Senate, which had previously passed the bill, then approved a minor language change made by the House, sending the bill to Gov. Kate Brown for a signature.
"Research has shown that raising the minimum legal sale age of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to 21 years, in line with alcohol and marijuana, significantly reduces the number of youth who begin using these products and become addicted to them, saving Oregonians billions of tax dollars, and the lives of thousands of loved ones, each year," said Rep. Rich Vial, R-Scholls.
Vial and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, sponsored the bill to help prevent youth from becoming addicted to tobacco. Tobacco-related disease is the state's leading cause of preventable death and claims the lives of more than 5,500 Oregonians each year.
"I'm not exaggerating — it will save thousands of lives down the road," Steiner Hayward said of the bill. "Thousands and thousands of lives."
Despite endorsements from public health advocates and an easy passage in the Senate, the bill faced a setback when tobacco company Altria hired former state Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, to lobby against the measure, according to a report by Willamette Week. Carter, the first black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature, argued to lawmakers that raising the legal age could prompt racial profiling of minority youth, according to the alt-weekly article.
The House Rules Committee amended the bill Monday, July 3, to eliminate the potential for that problem and ensure individuals younger than 21 are not penalized for possessing tobacco.
The statewide law would follow a similar law enacted in Lane County in March.
If signed by the governor, the bill would make Oregon the third state to raise the smoking age. Hawaii began the statewide trend in 2015, followed by California last year. More than 200 cities and counties, including New York City and Boston, have similar laws.
Roughly 1,800 Oregon kids become new daily smokers every year and an alarming 24 percent of Oregon's 11th graders report using tobacco products. The increase in sales age will keep tobacco products out of high schools, where young teens often access them from older classmates, according to advocates with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. About 95 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 21, said Christopher Friend, Oregon government relations director for the Cancer Action Network.
"High school is a prime time for youth to begin a tobacco addiction, but we know that if kids don't pick up a cigarette during these vulnerable teenage years that most of them will never start smoking later," Friend said.
Senate Bill 754 passed the House Thursday on a 39-20 vote. The Senate concurred with the House and re-passed it by a vote of 19-11. Most of the "no" votes came from Republicans, although a handful of Republicans voted in favor and a few House Democrats voted against it.
"It was a bipartisan bill," said Steiner Hayward, adding, "I was very pleased. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of protecting people's health."
Editor's note: This story has been updated Friday, July 7, with additional information on the votes and quotes from state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward. Mark Miller contributed to this report.