Deseret News
Cancer patients, survivors and local students fill out requests to see their legislators during the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s annual Cancer Action Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2019. The group is urging lawmakers to protect Utah kids from a lifetime of tobacco addiction and vote no on HB324, which would raise the state’s tobacco sales age to 21. The group says it opposes the legislation because it penalizes youth for purchasing and possessing tobacco products rather than focusing on the retailers.

Each year, 800 Utah kids under 18 become new daily smokers. Many others become hooked on e-cigarettes. At current smoking rates, 39,000 Utah kids who are alive today will eventually die from a tobacco-related illness.

During the legislative session, lawmakers debated bills with the stated goal of protecting kids from a lifetime addiction. These bills missed the mark. One bill would have taxed just e-cigarettes without also raising the price of all other tobacco products. Another attempted to limit where some flavored tobacco products could be sold. House Bill 324, which ultimately passed, will raise the sales age for tobacco products to 21 but sacrifices the authority of local governments to protect their citizens’ health.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network supports raising the sales age for all tobacco products because it promises to curb tobacco use and protect kids. Many kids become daily smokers between ages 18 and 21, and the longer we keep them away from tobacco products, the less likely they’ll start. In fact, 95 percent of adults who smoke begin before age 21.

We opposed House Bill 324 because it addresses the right problem the wrong way.

HB324 unfairly punishes youth for purchasing and possessing tobacco, rather than focusing on strong enforcement and compliance by retailers. Laws focusing on the purchaser rather than holding retailers accountable don’t reduce tobacco use. It takes the spotlight away from Big Tobacco, which preys on youth to replace the adults who are dying from their products, and shifts blame onto the victims — our youth.

The bill also exempts active duty military, their spouses and dependents. The U.S. Army Surgeon General says soldiers who smoke are less combat ready and take longer to heal. Tobacco use among active-duty military has enormous physical and fiscal impacts on troop readiness and reduces soldiers’ fitness. We should be doing everything to help members of our military and their families be healthy and ensure battle readiness.

Lastly, HB324 blocks lower levels of government from passing laws stronger than state law. Many important public health policies are developed and passed at the local level long before state legislatures act. While states should set a minimum standard for public health protections, they should not prevent local governments from going above and beyond that minimum standard.

The Utah Department of Health should monitor the impact of this bill closely and advise the Legislature to make changes if it fails to improve the health of Utahns. We won’t realize if there are any benefits until 2021 because this legislation phases in the age increase over a two-year period.

Moving forward, Utah lawmakers must focus on evidence-based policies that are proven to reduce tobacco use. These include regular and significant increases in the price of all tobacco products and fully funding our state’s tobacco prevention and control program.

1 comment on this story

Utah can improve its tobacco taxes. Unlike cigarettes and other tobacco products, e-cigarettes are only subject to sales tax in Utah. We also have not raised our cigarette tax since 2010. ACSCAN supports taxing e-cigarettes at the same rate as other tobacco products. However, the debate on e-cigarette taxes must also include increasing the tax on all other tobacco products to achieve the desired public health impact and revenue gains.

We know what works. Now, it’s up to the Legislature to pass and enact these proven policies. ACSCAN looks forward to working with lawmakers in the 2020 session to reduce the impact of tobacco in Utah.