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Legislators defeated an attempt Monday to raise the legal smoking age in Utah to 21, contending that government shouldn't be trying to dictate behavior.
"To say, 'The government needs to help people make better choices,' I'm concerned with that," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who added that if tobacco is a major health issue, the Legislature should consider banning it entirely, not just changing the age to buy it.
"Going down the road of helping people make better choices is not the role of government," Ivory said.
The bill, HB157 second substitute, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, would have made Utah the second state Hawaii became the first last year to require a person to be 21 to legally purchase cigarettes, chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes. In addition, 125 local governments have raised the age.
"There's nothing probably this legislative session more important to public health than this legislation as far as its impact on public health," said Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, which has endorsed the bill.
Miner said that 95 percent of smokers begin the habit before 21 and that boosting the age would save lives and tobacco-related medical costs.
"Unless you take action to deal with this reality, 39,000 current Utah youth are going to die a premature tobacco-induced death," Joseph Cieslewicz, the student body president at Wasatch High School, told members of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Jennifer Daly from the Utah Academy of Family Physicians said raising the age would save the lives of 2,300 Utahns a year and warned that voting against the bill only helps big tobacco companies.
But Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, noted that 90 percent of smokers start before the current legal age of 19. However, Miner said, many of those youths get their cigarettes from people who are 19 or 20 and raising the age would make it harder for underage smokers to obtain tobacco.
The committee defeated the bill in a 4-8 vote, with Ivory and Greene joining Reps. Rich Cunningham, John Knotwell, Dan McCay, Mike McKell, Douglas Sagers and Jon Stanard voting against raising the age. Democratic Reps. Joel Briscoe and Brian King joined Republicans Eric Hutchings and Jeremy Peterson in voting for the bill.