Skip navigation

Restore Local Authority

Washington State's laws on commercial tobacco regulation, including e-cigarettes, block almost all local authority to address community health needs through local laws. This state preemption is among the strictest in the nation.

WA is one of only 6 states that broadly preempt most local regulations for commercial tobacco products.

  • 19 states have no preemption of local commercial tobacco regulations.
  • 26 states have more limited preemption.

Washington Breathes advocates for comprehensive commercial tobacco prevention policies, practices, and programs that support the right of local communities to innovatively meet their local needs. This includes strengthening regulations, controlling commercial tobacco sales and marketing, and protecting youth and young adults from initiating commercial tobacco use.

State preemption of local authority to regulate commercial tobacco creates barriers to health equity and blocks local policies to protect youth from developing a nicotine addiction. Certain communities suffer even greater adverse impacts when state-level preemption policies are in place, because commercial tobacco-related health impacts disproportionately burden lower-income, LGBTQ+, communities of color, and rural communities.

Learn about local authority in other states: CDC's State Tobacco Activities Tracking and Evaluation (STATE) System.

Local Authority Protects Youth and Communities

Effective and equitable policymaking should start from within the community. When local communities come up with a solution for their challenges and work together to put it into practice, state governments should help them to improve it—not strike it down.

Benefits to local decision-making & local policies include:

  • the ability to address specific local needs, including disparities in nicotine use;
  • giving local communities more voice in protecting themselves from industry tactics; and
  • fostering innovation with new policy approaches.

In states without preemption, cities and counties are able to adopt protective local policies like these that are not allowed in Washington State:

  • Using local zoning laws to restrict smoke shops or vape stores from operating near schools, parks, playgrounds, and skate parks where children and youth gather
  • Prohibiting sales of flavored e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes and/or flavored cigars to reduce youth use and reduce disparities
  • Limiting or prohibiting point-of-sale tobacco advertising that is visible to children and youth
  • Prohibiting commercial tobacco sales in pharmacies, as contradictory to promoting health
  • Restricting use of discount tactics and price promotions that can entice new users and increase access for youth
  • Establishing minimum pack sizes for sales of cigars, little cigars, and cigarillos
  • Issuing local tobacco retailer licenses to help support local compliance activities to prevent sales to underage youth

Preemption and Commercial Tobacco

State preemption laws have long been supported by the tobacco industry as a legislative tactic to shift commercial tobacco control policy decisions away from communities to state legislatures, where industry lobbyists are usually more influential. The tobacco industry works to limit local authority by lobbying for federal and state laws that include language to prohibit local governments from enacting stronger regulations.

Preemption limits local governments' ability to enact locally-tailored policies to protect the health of their citizens. Once preemption is in place, it can be difficult to overturn or reverse.

Public health and community health is local. Preemption is often bad for community health because it takes away the power of a local governments to meet the needs of their specific communities.

“By introducing pre-emptive statewide legislation we can shift the battle away from the community level back to the state legislatures where we are on stronger ground.”  —Tina Walls, Philip Morris, July 8, 1994

How the Vaping Industry Is Using a Defensive Tactic Pioneered Decades Ago by Big Tobacco Sarah Milov, author of The Cigarette: A Political History, in Time Magazine

What Can be Done to Restore Local Authority in Washington State?

Preemption of local commercial tobacco regulations is a policy choice in Washington State that can be changed by state policymakers.

A more effective policy approach:

State laws can set strong, evidence-based standards to protect public health as the "floor"
preserve the rights of cities, counties, and local Boards of Health to enact more protective local laws to address needs in their communities.

Local Knowledge Informs Local Laws.

Residents want what’s best for their towns and cities. They know their problems and see them up close. To fix problems, state governments should be listening to our communities—not to commercial tobacco corporations that sell addictive, deadly products that also pollute our environments.

State laws should provide a foundation to build on — ensuring basic protections so everyone is treated fairly. Local governments should have the ability to strengthen those protections based on what they know about their community's needs.

In fact, this floor preemption approach already works in Washington for cannabis sales and marketing. State law only allows cannabis sales in more stringently regulated 21+ stores, limits the total number of retail licenses, and creates buffer zones around schools, playgrounds, parks, and other places children and youth gather. In addition, cities, towns, and counties can choose to limit the number of cannabis stores beyond state license limits, designate specific business zones for licensed cannabis stores, or prohibit cannabis sales entirely.

Resources on Benefits of Local Authority & Impacts of Preemption

From Public Health Law Center:

From ChangeLab Solutions:

From City Associations:

Other Sources: