D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser plans to sign some of the nation’s toughest anti-tobacco laws that will increase the smoking age to 21 and regulate electronic cigarettes like traditional ones, adding the District to the scores of jurisdictions trying to protect a new generation from nicotine addiction.
Bowser (D) signed legislation last week making it illegal to “vape” electronic cigarettes inside public establishments where lighting up tobacco is already banned, including bars, restaurants and workplaces. Vaping and smoking at outdoor patios is still permitted.
Her spokesman says she’ll also sign bills to increase the age to purchase all tobacco products from 18 to 21 and to ban the use of chewing tobacco at Nationals Park and other sporting events.
“This legislation will build on previous Administration efforts to promote healthy and active lifestyles and improve health outcomes for District residents for years to come, especially among our youth who often become overly exposed to tobacco products at an early age,” Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris said in a statement.
The prohibitions on public vaping can take effect as early as next year after a 30-day congressional review period, while the chewing tobacco ban would be in place for the next baseball season.
But teenage smokers can continue to buy cigarettes without trouble for nearly another year.
Before the increased smoking age can take effect, the District needs to find more than $1 million a year to make up for lost sales tax revenue. The next budget takes effect in October 2017, and officials say they don’t expect any problems funding what is essentially a rounding error in a $13 billion budget.
The new laws come as public health experts sound alarms about the popularity of e-cigarettes threatening to reverse decades of declining tobacco use due to aggressive public health campaigns and social stigma around cigarettes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a rise in high schoolers using e-cigarettes — from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015. Some data suggests those teens are then more likely to become conventional smokers.
Research shows more than 90 percent of tobacco users started when they were minors. Anti-tobacco advocates and lawmakers, including in the District, are in turn trying to limit youth exposure to tobacco products by restricting where they may be used and who can buy them.
“It’s a habit that once you start, it’s really hard to quit, and we don’t want children or young people to start,” said Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who co-sponsored the anti-tobacco legislation.
Some store owners told the council that increasing the age to buy cigarettes would only drive more sales to the black market, reducing their revenue while making little difference in youth smoking.
Alexander said tobacco companies didn’t put up much of a fight against the legislation. Instead, the loudest opposition to increasing the age to use tobacco came from one of the council’s most liberal members.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) fought against a $50 civil penalty for underage tobacco use, saying penalties should fall only on the retailers who illegally sell cigarettes.
He argues the District shouldn’t be adding reasons to punish its youths, and he fears that enforcement will disproportionately affect low-income teenagers of color.
Police “are not going to go to upper Northwest and bust some kid with a cigarette; they are going to crack down on the kids in Wards 7 and 8,” said Grosso, referring to the predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
While other council members agreed to reduce the fine to $25, Grosso joined Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in voting against the bill.
Mendelson opposed increasing the age to buy tobacco on philosophical grounds but did not use his powers to block legislation. He says he thinks it makes little sense that older teenagers can vote, fight in wars and even run for office — but not buy a legal product.
The D.C. ban on chewing tobacco at sporting events comes as anti-tobacco advocates across the country are trying to stop youths who admire baseball players from viewing the habit in a positive light.
While the D.C. ban would apply to all tobacco products at all organized sporting events, it’s targeted at the handful of Nationals coaches and players who still dip in the smoke-free Nationals Park.
A spokeswoman for the Nationals did not return a request for comment. Earlier in the year, some Nationals players privately pointed out that chewing tobacco bans are imposed in the name of public health at stadiums that sell alcohol and sugary and fatty foods.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says a third of Major League Baseball stadiums will be tobacco free by the 2017 season with laws passed in California, Boston, Chicago and New York City, while around 200 localities and California and Hawaii have increased the tobacco age to 21.
The group hailed Bowser for supporting anti-tobacco legislation, while urging her and the council to also increase funding for tobacco-cessation programs.
“This makes D.C. a national leader in protecting kids from tobacco, and we think this is going to significantly drive down tobacco use among kids,” said Vince Willmore, a spokesman for the group.