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Utah already has the highest age among the states for allowing tobacco purchases 19. But two legislators want to raise it a little higher, to age 21, which would match the state's minimum age for drinking alcohol.
"Studies show that an overwhelming majority of smokers try their first cigarette well before age 18. But the thing that caught my eye is they also say that the age when they become addicted [daily smokers] is closer to age 20," said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who is writing one bill.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who is writing another bill, said, "If people have not smoked by age 21, studies show it is extremely unlikely that they will ever begin smoking." He reasons that raising the age limit might prevent more young adults from becoming smokers.
Utah is not the only place looking at raising the smoking age to 21. New York and New York City are debating similar proposals, and similar bills have been introduced in Texas and New Jersey. It has set off hot debates in those states between doctors and the tobacco industry.
The legal age to buy tobacco in most states is 18 with four exceptions. It is age 19 in Utah, Alaska, Alabama and New Jersey. Powell said Utah raised it to end confusion in high schools about whether some 18-year-old students could be legally smoking there.
Reid said he is asking health officials around the state to look at the issue and has received general support from the Utah Department of Health for the concept of raising the age limit.
Preventable deaths • "Tobacco remains the most important preventable cause of death, disease and disability in Utah despite our relatively low smoking rates," Robert Rolfs, deputy director of the state Health Department, said. "The evidence we do have is [raising the age limit] would reduce the number of people who start smoking and it would be good for health."
He said there are solid reasons to believe such a law could have an impact.
"We always have to balance where is it appropriate to restrict people's personal liberty for a health benefit. There are some things about smoking that make that more compelling," Rolfs said. "There is evidence that young people are more susceptible to becoming addicted. There's evidence that young people are more susceptible to some of the marketing efforts."
New York City officials estimate that increasing the legal age to 21 there would bring a 55 percent reduction in tobacco use among people ages 18 to 20, and a 67 percent reduction among those ages 17 to 19. They say younger teens often use friends who are just barely 18 to buy cigarettes for them, and raising the age limit would hurt their access.
"Many of us did foolish things before age 21 that we would not do afterwards," Reid said, adding that the age limit on alcohol recognizes that and argues for a higher limit for tobacco.
Opposition • The National Association of Tobacco Outlets opposes raising the age limit.
"A law in Utah requiring a person to be age 21 to buy tobacco products will simply shift the buying habits of adults who are 19 and 20 years old. Specifically, where it is practical, adult-age consumers will travel across state borders and purchase tobacco products in neighboring states where the legal age is 18," said Thomas Briant, executive director of the association.
"Or these adult-age individuals will look to family members and older friends to buy tobacco products," he said. "The end result is that law-abiding retailers lose sales to retailers in neighboring states while the state of Utah loses cigarette and tobacco tax revenue."
But Powell said such arguments are shortsighted and ignore the high cost to state health care systems for tobacco-related disease.
The legislation could face a tough political fight, even though about 80 percent of state legislators are Mormons, a church that preaches against tobacco use. Bills to ban smoking in cars with children, for example, faced tough fights for years and passed only after significant weakening because many lawmakers argued it infringed too much on personal rights.
The tobacco industry donated a relatively large $82,300 to Utah legislators or their political action committees during the 2012 election cycle. It donated directly to 42 of the state's 104 lawmakers. Powell and Reid were not among the recipients.
The tobacco industry also has six registered lobbyists at the Utah Legislature including two former speakers of the House, Miles "Cap" Ferry and Greg Curtis, plus former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman.