Utah lawmaker hopes to raise smoking age to 21, despite bill's previous failure

Government And Institutions Associated Press

A Utah lawmaker has revived a proposal to raise the age for legal tobacco purchases to 21, despite the bill's failure in the Senate last year.

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Rep. Kraig Powell, a Heber City Republican, co-sponsored last year's bill with the now-retired Sen. Stuart Reid. Although the proposal narrowly passed a committee vote and later died in the Senate, Powell holds out hope for its chances this time around.

He said he has spoken to several older smokers who wished someone had intervened before they picked up the habit. The lawmaker also expressed concern about the societal cost of a long-term smoker's medical bills.

"We ought to view tobacco use as seriously as we view alcohol," Powell said.

Although some municipalities have raised the smoking age to 21, Utah remains one of only four states with a smoking age of 19. The others have set the age at 18.

Last year, opponents argued that 21 was an arbitrary age and would infringe upon the rights of legal adults.

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Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican, said Tuesday that he couldn't recall the specifics of last year's bill but that raising the smoking age sounded like something he would support. If Powell's bill makes it to the Senate this year, "it's probably one we would address," Niederhauser said.

Logan Republican Lyle Hillyard said he recalls concerns about young, out-of-state members of the military being a sticking point on the bill last year. Raising Utah's smoking age to 21 might mean soldiers relocated to Utah would not legally be allowed to buy cigarettes here even if they'd previously done so in their home state, he said.

Powell said he received several emails from citizens arguing that anyone old enough to serve their country should be able to choose to smoke.

On Monday, he defended the age of 21, citing research from the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium that suggests that age would have the most impact on reducing tobacco usage and underage access to tobacco products. The proposal would apply to not only cigarettes, but to all tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

"I understand the there's a liberty issue here," Powell said, but "I think it's important to draw this line."

Powell is also at work trying to make sure the current age limit is thoroughly enforced.

He is introducing another bill this year that would prohibit individuals under 19 years old from entering tobacco shops unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. A House committee will consider the issue Tuesday afternoon.

He said that proposal is simply clarification of the language already present in tobacco shop regulations and he does not expect much opposition. The restriction would only apply to specialty tobacco shops that do not keep tobacco products in a locked case, he said.

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Online:

HB 131: http://1.usa.gov/1F2yDZi

HB 130: http://1.usa.gov/1EDHrYj