Utahns who smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes may find their pocketbooks lighter and their eating habits changed by the Utah Legislature this year.
Leading lawmakers want to raise the cigarette tax and prohibit smoking in virtually all restaurants except those that sell liquor.Concern over the hazardous effects of secondhand smoke led Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, to push a bill that would outlaw smoking in restaurants and other public eateries that don't have a state beer or liquor license.
Restaurants and private clubs that sell liquor could still have smoking and non-smoking sections. But so-called "family" restaurants, from McDonald's to JB's to the cafeteria behind the state Capitol itself, would be forced to ban smoking.
Hillyard's bill will be heard in the Senate Health Committee Thursday morning. "Some individual restaurant owners may oppose this," said Hillyard. "But the Utah Restaurant Association doesn't oppose the bill."
Indeed, Hillyard has a long list of supporters, including state and county public health officials, the Utah Lung Association and the Utah Cancer Society.
There is similar support for HB227, introduced Tuesday by Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan. The bill would raise the state tax on cigarettes by 3 1/2 cents a pack, with the resulting $2.5 million being earmarked specifically for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs for children.
"There's enough support that we may want to amend the bill to 41/2 cents a pack," Frandsen said, adding that each penny added to the cigarette tax raises an additional $700,000.
Frandsen's bill is being opposed by the tobacco lobby, as well as the Utah Taxpayers Association and the Utah Manufacturers Association - all of which argue they do not oppose the principle of substance abuse treatment, just the way taxes are being raised to fund a specific program.
Most lawmakers, however, are supportive of the concept. Members of the House Republican Caucus recently voted unanimously to pursue such legislation. And in a Legislature where only a handful of lawmakers smoke, Hillyard's bill also has considerable support.
"Several cities, including Aspen, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo and others, have banned public restaurant smoking. But Utah would be the first state to adopt such a law," Hillyard said.
He cites a 1986 National Academy of Sciences study that says 20 percent of the lung cancer deaths - 12,200 - caused by smoking each year are due to secondhand smoke - or environmental tobacco smoke, as the experts refer to it. All told, public health officials estimate 53,000 Americas die from diseases caused by secondhand smoke, Hillyard said.
"Smoking is a cause of disease, including lung cancer, in healthy non-smokers," Hillyard quotes from a Surgeon General's report. "Separating smokers and non-smokers in the same room may reduce, but will not eliminate, non-smokers' exposure to tobacco smoke."
Current Utah law requires smoking and non-smoking sections in public restaurants. But Hillyard says few if any establishments have the physical layouts that completely keep the smokers' smoke out of the non-smokers' lungs. "There just aren't good enough ventilation systems. We have to do this."
Hillyard said he's had a few calls from people "who don't like the state taking away their free agency - their right to smoke in a restaurant." But he adds the state must also protect non-smokers - many of whom are children in the so-called "family" restaurants - who often don't have a say in where they eat.
There are no exceptions to the bill, even if the owners of a unique restaurant - like an out-of-the-way truck stop that serves many smoking patrons but which doesn't have a liquor license - wishes to have a smoking section, or make the whole restaurant a smoking area. It would have to ban the practice under Hillyard's bill.
There are several no-smoking restaurants in Salt Lake City already, and Hillyard has collected testimony from their owners, each saying the policy hasn't harmed business.
Frandsen's bill is an outgrowth of the Utah Substance Abuse Coordinating Council, which estimates that between 14,000 and 15,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 need treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. Because of an ongoing lack of funding, only about 1,100 received treatment through publicly funded programs.
"We have the programs in place. We just haven't funded them adequately," Frandsen said. "When compared against all the very real social services needs, it just hasn't been a high enough priority."
Frandsen adds that increases in the cigarette tax tend not to affect consumption among adults but do reduce the number of children who smoke. "It's a win-win situation. We have fewer kids smoking and we get the revenue," he said.
The cigarette tax was chosen as a funding vehicle, he said, because tobacco is considered a "gateway" drug for children who go on to abuse alcohol or illegal drugs.
Opponents say earmarking funds for a specific program is the wrong approach. "If in fact there is a need for the program, then it must be a worthy enough issue to be funded out of the general fund," said Larry Bunkall of the Utah Manufacturers Association.
Added Howard Stephenson of the Utah Taxpayers Association, "We are concerned about the message of tax increases to Utah citizens, even those who don't smoke," he said.
The tax increase would make Utah's cigarette tax one of the highest in the western United States, but by no means the highest (see related chart).