Washingtonians are rightfully proud of our crisp, fresh air. Whether we’re inside a busy restaurant or hiking a quiet mountain trail, we’re probably breathing clean air that’s protected by law. But when it comes to tobacco use and prevention, clean air is about all the Evergreen State can brag about.
According to a new tobacco health report card from the American Lung Association, the state’s only passing grade is an ‘A’ in smoke-free air protections. When it comes to tobacco prevention funding, access to quitting help, and youth access to tobacco, Washington earns an F.
The state’s failing grade might surprise some who don’t see cigarette smoking as a widespread issue, simply because we don’t see as many cigarette smokers, period. It’s true that the vast majority of adults — over 85 percent — don’t light up, and cigarette smoking is at near-historic lows for adults and youth. But despite lower rates of cigarette use, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States and in Washington.
Among youth, electronic cigarette use spiked 78 percent between 2017 and 2018, leading the FDA to declare youth vaping an epidemic.
In part, that’s because while traditional cigarettes may be what most people associate with tobacco use, there are many other ways to get a fix, from chewing tobacco to electronic vape pens. Among youth, electronic cigarette use spiked 78 percent between 2017 and 2018, leading the FDA to declare youth vaping an epidemic.
In the report, the ALA calls for Washington state to provide more funding for tobacco prevention and quitting programs and raise the minimum smoking age to 21. (It’s worthwhile to note that Washington is not the only place with a bad rap: No state is funding tobacco prevention at the CDC’s recommended level, and 43 U.S. states and Washington D.C. spend less than half of what the CDC recommends on prevention.)
How can Washington boost its grades?
Addressing the ALA’s recommendation to provide better funding to tobacco prevention and cessation programs is simple, says Liz Wilhelm, M.S., of Seattle Children’s Division of Adolescent Medicine and drug-free communities coordinator with Seattle’s Prevention W.I.N.S. Coalition.
“Just use the tobacco taxes we collect in our state on only tobacco prevention and cessation instead of redirecting in our state budget,” she says.
Instead, the last legislative session saw prevention funds hold steady or trend downward. Although Washington’s current year funding for tobacco prevention and cessation is about the same as last year, around $1.5 million, the legislature reduced the spending authority for Washington’s Youth Tobacco & Vapor Products Prevention by $1.6 million.
Another one of Washington’s Fs — failing to increase the state’s smoking age to 21 — may see progress soon. In 2017, PNW neighbor Oregon joined four other U.S. states in raising the minimum smoking age to 21, a move that research shows can curb youth access to tobacco and save lives. Washington has three such bills under consideration, House Bill 1054, Senate Bill 5025 and Senate Bill 6048, and while none have passed, the proposals have momentum and broad-based support.
What can parents do to help?
Whether Washington gets its grades up or not, parents should talk with their kids about e-cigarettes and tobacco use. Per the ALA, almost 95 percent of smokers try their first cigarette by the age of 21.
But talking to kids about vaping is tough when many parents and educators may not know much about it, says Wilhelm.
“Many parents and teachers have never seen a vape pen and don’t know what they’re looking for.”
Because youth are widely exposed to vaping through peers and marketing, parents can have more effective conversations around prevention if they’re armed with some information about its risks. Yolanda Evans, MD, MPH, of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, recommends that parents, teachers, and caregivers get familiar with the common myths about vaping, from “vaping is healthier than cigarettes” to “vaping isn’t addictive and helps people quit smoking.”
Though prevention is underfunded at the state level, parents and teachers can still use resources from Washington Poison Center, Escape the Vape and Partnership for Drug-Free Kids at home in their classrooms. What’s critical: Don’t wait to talk to your kid about tobacco and vaping. The state may be earning an F in prevention funding, but Washington parents can still make the grade.
Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital.