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Committee passes bill restricting tobacco use to all under 21

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 2:35 p.m. MST

In this Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011 photo, cigarettes made by a customer lie next to loose tobacco at Island Smokes in New York. A Senate committee approved a bill Thursday that would restrict anyone under 21 from using or purchasing tobacco or e-cigarettes. (Seth Wenig, Associated Press) In this Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011 photo, cigarettes made by a customer lie next to loose tobacco at Island Smokes in New York. A Senate committee approved a bill Thursday that would restrict anyone under 21 from using or purchasing tobacco or e-cigarettes. (Seth Wenig, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Betty Lawson sat in her wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen Thursday, and said she wishes she'd never picked up that first cigarette when she was 19.

"It's a creeping, insidious thing that has you before you know it, and you can't turn loose," the Midvale woman said.

Lawson, now 86, quit smoking 20 years later, but she has suffered from a multitude of smoking-related health problems. Her doctors say she would probably live to be 104, if it weren't for her lungs.

"Had I been informed, had I been taught, had I seen what cigarettes could do … I would never have picked them up at 21 because I had matured," she said.

She came to the state Capitol Thursday to support SB12, which would raise the tobacco use and purchase age to 21 beginning in July of 2016. The bill specifically includes e-cigarettes in the age restriction.

With a 4-1 vote Thursday, a Senate committee recommended the bill sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden.

"I've dedicated 37 years for my mother in the fight against tobacco. It is the most painful thing to watch her dying of a disease," said Lawson's daughter, Kim Bennion, a registered respiratory therapist. "We feel like today has been a real victory for us."

A recent telephone survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates found 67 percent of Utah voters favor raising the age to 21. The survey of more than 500 people revealed eight out of 10 people are concerned about tobacco use.

Medical professionals testified that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, high blood pressure and infertility.

Brains and lungs are not fully developed for young adults, and smoking causes "permanent impairment" in growth, according to Dr. Claudia Fruin, a pediatrician.

"Preventing tobacco use among teens and adults is important because national data indicates that 95 percent of adult tobacco users start using before the age of 21," said Heather Borski with the Utah Department of Health.

Bill supporters also said the age change would decrease smoking and, in turn, drastically decrease health costs.

"CDC estimates that smoking-related costs burden the Utah economy by more than $540 million in medical costs and nearly $300 million in productivity losses," Borski said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lifetime health care costs of smokers total an average of $17,500 more than a nonsmoker, she said.

Those who oppose the bill agreed that tobacco is unhealthy but expressed concerns about the government regulating adult behavior.

"They're not children. They're legal adults," said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, pointing out that young adults can vote, enlist in the military and sue someone.

Davis said Utah has the lowest rate of youth smokers and adult smokers. He said a large majority start smoking before the age of 18 anyway.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, agreed the proposed law would affect adults but said lawmakers need to balance individual liberty with the data showing a "significant and disproportionate harm" to the young adult demographic.

"At the end of the day, I hate the idea of the government telling people they can't do stupid things," Thatcher said.

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