SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A push to bar young people in Utah from buying tobacco products until they’re 21 cleared an early hurdle at the state Legislature on Wednesday.
In a packed hearing room, an interim committee of lawmakers voted 8-5 to recommend the proposal raising the threshold from the current age of 19. The recommendation will accelerate the proposal toward final approval when the next legislative session starts in January.
Supporters of the legislation said increasing the age by a few years may prevent young people from becoming addicted to tobacco.
The lawmakers voting against the proposal said there was no proof such a change would curb the number of young smokers. Instead, they said it would infringe on the freedom of young adults.
The early approval of the proposal comes a day after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed similar legislation, making New York the first large city or state in the country to bar tobacco sales to young adults.
Utah is already among a handful of states that ban sales for those under 19 years old, instead of 18.
The sponsors of the Utah proposal, Heber City Republican Rep. Kraig Powell and Ogden Republican Sen. Stuart Reid, said if young people aren’t able to start smoking before 21, the chances that they will become smokers are much lower.
Reid also noted it would match the age that people could purchase alcohol.
Beverly May, a regional representative of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told lawmakers that idea to raise the age is a good one because it will prevent even younger teens from smoking.
For young people who start smoking at 13 or 14, many of them get cigarettes from older teens who can legally purchase them, May said.
May and Reid both said that at 21, people are more mature and responsible and less likely to give tobacco to young teens.
But opponents of the bill say it could just grow the group of underage teens obtaining tobacco from older friends.
“I believe it’s just as likely that 21 to 25 year olds will provide to 18 year olds,” said Rep. Brian Greene, a Republican from Pleasant Grove.
Greene said the first priority of lawmakers is to protect the freedom of the people they represent, “not to protect them from harm that they may cause to themselves.”
If the current limit at age 19 is not working, then more needs to be done to enforce the law, he said.
Utah Department of Health Director Dr. David Patton acknowledged the personal liberty and responsibility arguments when he endorsed raising the age.
“But that ends where we end up with secondhand smoke or we have costs that are incurred to the state,” Patton said to the committee. He said the long term health effects of tobacco use cost money and drive up spending in government programs like Medicaid.
In response to that argument, Rep. Michael Kennedy, a Republican from Alpine, asked why lawmakers didn’t also wade into other health issues such as obesity.
Patton said genetics factor into obesity, but “tobacco smoke, it’s a deliberate act to kill yourself.”
Utah Food Industry Association President Dave Davis said the retailers he represents, including stores selling tobacco products, are opposed to the measure and are worried about government overreach.
“At what point,” Davis said, “Does government step in and say that we think this behavior or that behavior, or that second box of Twinkies that you’re buying is just not appropriate?”