Tobacco laws in Washington State are in a layered arrangement of federal laws, state laws, and local regulations.
Effective enforcement requires a combination of compliance education, frequent inspections, investigation of reported violations, and controlled purchases with investigative aides.
Washington Breathes believes enforcement of regulations on the sale, distribution, and purchase of commercial tobacco products should be focused on the manufacturers and retailers of the products.
Reducing youth use of commercial tobacco products is best achieved and most equitable through supportive community-based interventions, rather than punitive measures directed at individuals.
Retailer compliance checks should not disproportionately target retailers in specific communities.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have authority to enforce federal tobacco laws.
FDA's Role: Through its Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), the FDA is responsible for carrying out the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA), which Congress passed in 2009. This law provides broad authority to regulate the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products. FDA helps industry comply with the law by developing and providing compliance training and education. It also monitors industry and retailer compliance through surveillance, inspections, and investigations. When necessary, FDA will take action against non-compliant industries and retailers.
ATF's Role: The ATF is the federal law enforcement agency with primary jurisdiction over the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act (CCTA) and the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act. These federal laws prohibit illegal sales of domestically produced and counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco products, which is often linked to violent organized crime and evasion of federal and state tax laws.
Tribes are sovereign nations with unique political and legal status. Tribes in Washington State enforce federal commercial tobacco laws that apply to Tribal lands and enforce their own Tribal regulations related to commercial tobacco. Some Tribes also have commercial tobacco compacts with the State of Washington.
Generally, cigarette sales by Tribes in Washington to non-Indian customers are subject to the state cigarette sales tax. Learn more in Washington State’s Indian Tax Guide.
Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) enforcement actions pnly apply to Tribal owned tobacco retailers if the business is located outside of Tribal lands. WSLCB officers inform Tribal police if they are aware of a potential violation of commercial tobacco laws by a retailer on Tribal lands.
The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) enforces tobacco licensing, manufacturing, sales, product labeling, and tax laws in Washington State. They also provide tobacco awareness and state law education to tobacco retailers and the general public with assistance from the Washington State Department of Health.
Commercial tobacco laws enforced by WSLCB include:
- licensing requirements for retailers and distributors
- no sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21 years of age.
- required signage in retail establishments
- compliance with tax laws
- compliance with
A license is required to sell or distribute commercial tobacco in Washington. Applications are reviewed by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board's Enforcement Division who determine applicant eligibility to hold a tobacco license, which includes passing a criminal background check. Washington has different types of licenses for retail sales of cigarettes, vapor products, and other tobacco products, as well as a separate license for distributing cigarettes.
WSLCB's current list of tobacco licenses is available from their Frequently Requested Lists page.
The only cigarettes that can be sold in Washington are those on the list of certified tobacco manufacturers. The list can be found on the Office of the State Attorney General Tobacco Suppliers and Manufacturers web page.
WA State law on minimum sales age aligns with a federal law enacted after Washington’s Tobacco21 law. Retailer compliance is monitored and enforced by WSLCB, with some funding provided by the FDA. WSLCB page on Tobacco21 Compliance
Smoking has been prohibited in all public places, places of employment, and within 25 feet of buildings in Washington State since December 2005 (RCW 70.160). No smoking signs are also required (RCW 70.160.050).
Local health departments understand their local communities and are extremely effective partners to WSLCB and FDA on compliance. They educate and provide resources about commercial tobacco sales compliance and smokefree laws. Some cities and counties passed no vaping in public places (VIPP) ordinances and receive enforcement support from local health departments through warnings and education that remedy a reported violation, or through fines for continuing violations. Local health department compliance activities can feel more like a partnership for local businesses, and prevent unnecessary interactions with state agencies or law enforcement officers.
Impacts of state preemption: Local governments have limited tools for retailer compliance and enforcement because state law preempts local licensing of tobacco or vapor product retailers. Local licensing provides a regulatory tool and a mechanism for covering local costs of compliance activities through license fees. Learn more about impacts of state preemption
When state commercial tobacco funding was dramatically reduced in 2012, local retailer education and compliance activities by local health departments fell dramatically also. Lack of funding has shifted most enforcement to complaint-based responses rather than proactive outreach that is more effective in protecting youth and communities. Learn more about restoring funding
Ineffective and Inequitable PUP Laws
Washington Breathes encourages policies that focus accountability and enforcement on tobacco manufacturers and retailers. Purchase use and possession laws - or PUP laws - target individuals who are using addictive products,, with key impacts on underage youth. The tobacco industry often supports an enforcement focus on individuals because it shifts the focus away from the the responsibilities of commercial tobacco product manufacturers and retailers who irresponsible target and/or sell to youth.
Some lawmakers may think PUP laws are effective deterrents to use, especially for underage youth, but the evidence does not support that conclusion. Interactions between youth who may be using commercial tobacco products and law enforcement can be harmful experiences for youth, and are not evidence-based prevention or nicotine cessation interventions.
Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ youth and other youth of color are more targeted by tobacco industry marketing and often more negatively impacted by interactions with the criminal justice system. A 2023 Health Impact Review of Washington’s PUP law by the Washington State Board of Health found very strong evidence that “reducing interaction with enforcement officers in some circumstances for some youth will improve health outcomes for these youth.”
Many prominent national organizations and Washington State organizations have written a national policy statement with principles for more effective and equitable enforcement by eliminating practices that target individuals and focusing on holding businesses and the tobacco industry accountable.
Progress on PUP Reform In Washington State
In 2023, the Washington State Legislature took important steps to improve commercial tobacco enforcement by passing ESSB 5365, which took effect July 23, 2023. This legislation reduced the scope of enforcement practices on underage youth and increased monetary penalties on retailers who are illegally selling addictive nicotine products to underage individuals.
Simple summary of changes under ESSB 5365:
- Removed enforcement authority from police and sheriff officers for enforcement of WA's commercial tobacco purchase, use, possession laws.
- Restricted the authority of WSLCB enforcement officers to detain or ID youth suspected of a PUP violation to inside a tobacco retail store and 100-feet around store.
- Removed the monetary fine for PUP civil penalties for youth under 18. Existing law already did not penalize underage individuals aged 18-20.
- Required new LCB reporting on enforcement interactions & requires U.S. DOJ training for LCB officers
- Increased enforcement penalties on retailers, see table below.
Learn more about Ineffective PUP Laws
- "Youth Tobacco Enforcement Doesn’t Work and It Discriminates," Washington State Public Health Association and other organizations
- "PUP in Smoke: Why Youth Tobacco Possession & Use Penalties are Ineffective & Inequitable," ChangeLab Solutions