SALT LAKE CITY — The age at which Utahns can legally buy cigarettes and other tobacco products will be a topic of conversation for lawmakers in the upcoming session.
The provision moving the legal age from 19 to 21 — which some call an adjustment to existing regulation — was passed by the Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday.
"The people we represent expect us to make sure that we're not allowing things to harm society and things that harm individuals in society," said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who is sponsoring the drafted legislation. He said tobacco use "can and does harm people," even costing lives.
Preventing access by the age group between ages 19 and 21, Reid said, will limit access to even younger teenagers, who are statistically more likely to become addicted to tobacco.
Cameron Mitchell, director of the Utah Association of Local Health Departments, said survey results indicate that the average age Utah teens start smoking is 12.6.
"Delaying the age at which they can access tobacco products will also reduce the risk that they will become tobacco users later in life," he said, adding that he believes an administrative change would lead to an overall decline in tobacco use.
Utah Department of Health Director Dr. David Patton said people are generally more mature at age 21, making them less likely to illicitly purchase tobacco products for teens. Utah already has a law limiting the purchase of alcohol by anyone under age 21.
Lawmakers argued that alcohol use has the potential to hurt people other than the user, whereas smoking cigarettes does not.
Patton said, however, that tobacco use is the "most preventable cause of death and disease."
"Tobacco smoke is a deliberate act to kill yourself," he said.
Health department surveys of Utah youths indicate that the majority of teens, 62 percent, get the tobacco products that they use from family and friends who are under age 21. Ninety-five percent of tobacco-addicted adults have said they first smoked a cigarette before age 21, said Beverly May, regional director of the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"Increasing the legal age of sales is likely to have an impact on that," she said. "Tobacco is a highly addictive, deadly product. Reducing the age of access will save lives."
While he said he doesn't agree with the practice of smoking, Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants and the Utah Food Industry Association, said he disagrees with the proposed legislation, saying it interferes with individual liberties. Many of the retailers he represents have already decided not to sell tobacco products, but some still do.
"When can we be adults in the state of Utah? When is it acceptable for us to make decisions regarding our own health and the implications that it might have in other places of our lives?" Davis asked the committee. He said keeping the age limit at 19 "makes the most sense."
Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, said he'd like to think kids learn direction and guidance from their parents and further regulation of tobacco products would infringe on individual rights of making the choice to smoke or not.
"I'm not in favor of teenage smoking, but I don't know where you draw the line," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
The proposed legislation received support by all but five members of the committee, including Cosgrove, Weiler, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and representatives Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, and Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove. It will face discussion among the entire Legislature during the upcoming session that begins in January.
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