Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Lawmakers To Consider Measure To Raise Smoking Age To 21

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
High school senior Mason Thurman speaks at a State Capitol press conference in Salem on behalf of a bill that would raise the legal limit to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The legal age to purchase and use tobacco in Oregon would rise from 18 to 21 under a measure under consideration in the legislature. A similar measure is under consideration in Washington state this year.

If the bill is approved, Oregon would join California and Hawaii as the only states with an age limit of 21 to purchase or use tobacco. Violators of the Oregon measure would face civil, not criminal penalties.

One of the bill's sponsors, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, said that is a conscious decision.

"This is not a criminal issue. This is an education issue," she said. "People under 21 caught in possession of these substances will simply have them confiscated and they'll be destroyed."

Store clerks and store owners would face civil penalties, such as fines. That's already true for sales of tobacco to people under 18.

A similar proposal came before the Oregon legislature in 2015, but never made it out of committee. This year's measure does have some bipartisan support. Republican Rep. Richard Vial is one of the sponsors.

"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 over-regulation of our lives," Vial said. "But to me, this is very much like seat belts and child restraints, those things that really do contribute to society that we all feel good about."

Supporters of the bill say it would make it harder for teens to get ahold of the cancer-causing substance. And doing so would also take the pressure off older teens who are sometimes asked to buy cigarettes on behalf of their younger friends.

Mason Thurman is a senior at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton. He said one of his closest friends starting smoking at age 15.

"Because I'm 18, him and some of his fellow other peers they ask me every day if I can give them tobacco,” Thurman said. “And I always say 'no' and then they continue to bribe me. They try to give me money to try to peer pressure me or bully me into doing it."

The legislation is backed by a coalition of public health groups, including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society. Similar coalitions were behind the successful efforts to raise the smoking age in California and Hawaii.

In Oregon, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners considered a proposal last year to raise the age limit in the county. Commissioners decided to wait to see if the state legislature would act. In Lane County, commissioners are moving forward with a plan to raise the age limit. The proposal will be the subject of a hearing there later this month.