Commentary: Tobacco and Vapor 21 — What you need to know

New required Tobacco and Vapor 21 sign, as seen in retail stores.

Washington State is kicking off a big change for the better. As of Jan. 1, 2020, Engrossed House Bill 1074 – or Tobacco and Vapor 21 – makes it illegal to sell tobacco and vapor products to anyone under 21.

Including Washington State, Tobacco and Vapor 21 is currently the law – or will be law soon – in 18 states, as well as Washington D.C. and Guam. The federal government is also considering enacting this change nationwide.

This law is crucial to improving health outcomes for youth and young adults. The vast majority of people who smoke began before the age of 18, and most young people under 18 get tobacco and vapor products from people they know who are 18, 19, and 20 – siblings, fellow students, co-workers, and other peers. By making it harder for kids to get tobacco and vapor products from these sources, we’ll help prevent the next generation from becoming addicted to nicotine.

Youth prevention is critical – young Washingtonians are experiencing a vaping epidemic. In 2018, about one in five Washington 10th graders, and roughly one in three 12th graders, reported using vapor products. This is a dramatic increase from 2012 when only 1 in 25 Washington 10th graders vaped. Decades of progress have been erased by vapor products, which is further concerning because nicotine changes adolescents’ brain cell activity in parts of the brain responsible for attention, learning, and memory; not to mention the risk of vaping associated lung injuries.

The good news is that the Tobacco and Vapor 21 law will make a difference. A March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine strongly concluded these laws substantially reduce the number of kids who start smoking, and future deaths related to smoking. When coupled with other evidence-based and emerging strategies to curb youth nicotine use, there’s reason to be hopeful about the health of young people in our state.

The Department of Health has been working hard to prepare for Tobacco and Vapor 21. Here’s just some of what we’ve been up to:

  • With help from the Liquor and Cannabis Board we created and mailed an informational packet to the roughly 6,000 tobacco and vapor product retailers and clerks in Washington State.
  • We’ve updated our web presence, including a new Tobacco and Vapor 21 page to answer questions and offer guidance on the new law.
  • We launched an app to help teens and young adults quit vaping.
  • We’ve made additional resources available for 18- to 20-year-olds who want to quit, including expanded access to nicotine replacement therapy. It’s available when they use the smoking and tobacco cessation app at or quit coaching via 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

In 2019, Washington State considered Tobacco and Vapor 21 for the fifth time, and in April the law finally got across the finish line. There’s more work to do, but starting January 1, we can celebrate a new year where Washington kids are better protected from the harms of nicotine and tobacco.

Learn more at and

— By John Wiesman

John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, is Washington State’s Secretary of Health


  1. I support this change of law but question will people actually enforce it in any way more difficult than retail sales.

    Kids smoking is less about people buying the products for them as it is about people turning a blind eye to the usage. Heard many times that if some kid in HS is seen smoking on campus that teachers can’t do anything about it because you don’t know if they are 18 or not. Seen countless times kids smoking in front of cops, not worried that anything more than being hassled will happen.

    This law takes the at school excuse off the table but will people step up and enforce rules? I wonder, since they currently don’t seem to “really” do all that much about vaping in the middle schools and there was never a chance that one of those students was 18.

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