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After emotional debate, legislators advanced a bill Thursday to raise Utah's smoking age already highest among the states from 19 to 21.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 4-1 to endorse SB12, and sent it to the full Senate, despite critics arguing that adults should be free to make even bad choices to buy legal products.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, sponsor of the bill, amended it so it would not take effect until July 1, 2016, so that legal smokers who are now age 19 or 20 would turn 21 before it kicked in.
Betty Lawson, 86, became a poster child of sorts for the bill as she sat in a wheelchair breathing oxygen through a tube because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She blames the disease on smoking for 20 years even though she quit long ago.
"I started smoking when I was 19," she said.
Lawson said she matured a lot between ages 19 and 21, and may never have started smoking if Reid's bill had been law long ago.
"They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I'm the picture," she said holding her oxygen tubes.
Reid also called on a long line of physicians to testify about how smoking hurts health.
They also argued that many teenagers obtain cigarettes from friends who are 19 and 20 and can buy them legally so the bill could cut teen smoking.
But Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association/Utah Retail Merchants Association, said SB12 is "not a youth-protection bill. It will prevent folks we have determined are legal adults from getting access to a legal product."
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, noted that Utah also bans drinking until age 21, and asked Davis if he saw much difference between health effects of cigarettes and alcohol. He said medical studies show drinking has effects on still-developing brains of 19- and 20-year-olds, but said studies do not show that for tobacco.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, a physician, disputed that and offered to provide studies that show similar effects for tobacco.
Davis said the change could create a "slippery slope" that might lead the government to ban high-calorie foods to prevent obesity, or ban motorcycle riding by youths to prevent injuries.
But Robles said the difference is those activities would hurt only the person involved, while "smoking affects many people around then." She added, "We need to draw a line where it is such an obvious public health issue."
Resident Tom Willis testified the bill will make criminals of young people who smoke and hurt their employment prospects. "This isn't doing them a favor, it's hurting them. We need to foster and guide and help our children make decisions."
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he voted for the bill only to allow more debate in the Senate. "I hate the idea of the government telling people they can't do stupid things," he said.
The legal age to buy, sell or possess tobacco in most states is 18, with four exceptions. It is 19 in Utah, Alaska, Alabama and New Jersey. New York City just approved raising the age to 21, as have some other U.S. cities.