Bill to raise smoking age in Utah advances

Posted at 4:43 PM, Nov 20, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-20 18:43:13-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco and related products advanced out of an interim committee, but not without some opposition from lawmakers.

The bill would raise the smoking age in Utah from 19 to 21, and also prevent tobacco products and e-cigarettes from being sold to anyone under 21.

"It'll keep the young people from being addicted," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden. "Something that we know creates death and health problems."

The bill debuted before a packed meeting for the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, the last interim session before the Utah State Legislature convenes in January. Supporters testified that it could save Utah millions of dollars in long-term healthcare costs because of tobacco-related illnesses, and reduce the chances of children becoming addicted.

"Ninety percent of legal adults that purchase tobacco for underage smokers are under 21," said Dr. David Patton, the executive director of the Utah Department of Health. "So we think that would be a good prevention for transfer of those harmful drugs."

But lawmakers were skeptical.

"The 19-year-old age isn't a deterrent," said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove. "What makes you think that 21-year-old age will be a deterring factor?"

Rep. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, asked if lawmakers would be coming back in a few years to raise the age again to 25, or banning cigarettes outright? It was an idea supported by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden.

"Why don't we make tobacco illegal across the board?" Christensen said. "Because we can't get it passed. We ought to. But we can't get it passed. So raising it to 21 is a reasonable, responsible limit and I find myself arguing for children once again."

Only one person testified in opposition to the bill on Wednesday. Dave Davis of the Utah Food Retailers Association worried about "the creeping hand of government."

"When can we be adults in the state of Utah?" he asked the committee.

The bill passed out of committee with some lawmakers voting against it. If it passes the full Utah State Legislature next year, Utah would be the first state in the nation to raise the smoking age to 21. New York City recently raised the age, and supporters testified that Hawaii was considering it as well.

"We have a culture in terms of health and we have a culture that says tobacco is not something that we should be accessing," Reid told reporters outside the committee meeting. "We set the example for the rest of the nation."