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Legislators took a first step Wednesday toward raising Utah's already highest-among-the-states smoking age, from 19 to 21. Committee endorsement of the proposal came despite lively arguments by even some cigarette opponents that the move would infringe on the personal liberty of adults.
"We have a responsibility to protect first and foremost the liberties of our citizens, not to protect them from harm that they may cause to themselves," said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, one of five members of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee who voted against the bill.
But Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, the bill's sponsor, said, "We make judgment calls about that all the time. Obviously, you wouldn't advocate that we didn't have any regulations, that we didn't have any speed limits, that we didn't inspect food."
Reid added that Utah already bans drinking alcohol until age 21 and argued that even more reason exists to also ban smoking until that age. "We know tobacco will kill people. You can drink and you're not necessarily going to get sick or die from it."
But Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who voted against the bill, rejected the comparison.
"I think there is a huge difference between cigarettes and alcohol. Cigarettes, you are talking about someone harming themselves. Alcohol, we're talking about someone getting behind the wheel of a car and killing a family."
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. Utah is not the only place looking at raising the smoking age. New York City just approved raising it to 21, as have some other cities nationally. Legislatures in Hawaii, New Jersey, Colorado and Texas are all expected to consider similar bills next year as will Utah now that the interim committee endorsed it.
Testifying in favor of the bill were anti-smoking groups and state and local health departments. The only group that testified against it Wednesday were retailers who sell cigarettes, although several lawmakers who all said they dislike cigarettes raised concerns about interfering with freedom.
DavidPatton, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said state studies show that most young teenagers obtain their cigarettes illegally from adults who themselves are just barely old enough to buy them legally.
"Ninety percent of legal adults that purchase tobacco for underage smokers are under age 21," he said, so raising the smoking age likely also would reduce the number of teenagers who try smoking and become addicted.
Cameron Mitchell, executive director of the Utah Association of Local Health Departments, said the average age for Utahns who try a first cigarette is 12.6 so few 21 years olds would likely interact socially with them and provide cigarettes, while 19 year olds would be more likely.
He added that a study in Needham, Mass., which raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005, showed that smoking rates among high school students there dropped 50 percent by 2012.
Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a doctor who voted against the bill, asked why then not just raise the age to 25 or even outlaw tobacco outright.
Stuart said the age of 21 is a political judgment that he feels most people now support as more studies show the danger of smoking and who is providing cigarettes to teenagers and it also matches the age for drinking.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association/Utah Retail Merchants Association, said merchants are "concerned about this creeping hand of government, and what's next on the docket," including possibly trying to control obesity by saying "that second box of Twinkies you are buying is just not appropriate. Is that the proper role of government?"
But Beverly May, regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said tobacco use costs non-smokers as well as smokers, and said the bill would help cut smoking rates.
"It costs our state of Utah $345 million in annual health-care costs related to tobacco use. One-hundred-four million dollars of that is Medicaid dollars. Each family pays $516 for Medicaid for tobacco related diseases that touch peoples' lives," she said.