Tobacco bill would raise the legal age of purchase to 21 years old
Utah would become the first state to raise the age limit for purchasing tobacco products to 21 years old, if a bill passes after it failed to gain enough support in 2014.
This week, a Utah House of Representatives committee will get its first look at the revived bill, which stalled in the Senate last year.
Sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, a Republican from Heber City whose district includes Park City, HB 130 would prohibit the sale of tobacco products or related paraphernalia, such as lighters and electronic cigarettes, to people younger than 21 years old.
"The most important fact we keep emphasizing over and over again is that 90 percent of adult smokers began smoking cigarettes prior to the age of 21," Powell said. "If we can delay their first exposure and the early habitual use of cigarettes, it’s likely that they won’t get hooked."
Utah is one of four states with a legal purchasing age for tobacco products of 19. But if passed, it would become the first state where tobacco and alcohol legislation are in sync.
Despite the bill narrowly passing the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last year, Powell said he is more confident the bill will be successful this time around. But he admitted it will likely face opposition in the Senate again.
"I think there is a good chance that we could pass it this year, but I don’t think much has changed in the legislation. So it could be difficult to get senators to change their minds from the way they voted last year," he said. "If Utah can just take this step, I think that other states would follow because it would build some momentum."
One of the objections to the bill last year concerned members of the military who are stationed in Utah.
"It’s one of the biggest sticking points some of the senators had," Powell said.
Powell, who co-sponsored the bill last year, said he is drafting an amendment to the bill that would make purchasing exceptions for active duty military members stationed in the state who have lived in another state within the past three years.
"I think Utah has as good a chance as any state because of our culture and our low rates of smoking already," he added. "Why shouldn’t it be the first state? We can take the lead and set an example."
Todd Weiler, a Republican who represents parts of Davis and Salt Lake counties, who voted against the measure last year, said he would cast another ‘nay’ vote this year.
"We are already such an outlier when it comes to our alcohol laws and I don’t see a reason to become an outlier on tobacco," Weiler said. "If you are 18, you are old enough to go to war, but we’re trying to say you are not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. I have a hard time with that."
Weiler also expressed concerns about the bill’s effect on tourists.
"That ties into my cross-jurisdictional arguments for people who can legally smoke in another state but they come here and we tell them they can’t," he said. "Sundance is a great example of that as we are attracting all these people and skiers. I mean they can smoke marijuana in Denver, but they can’t buy a cigarette here?
"I don’t smoke and I don’t want my kids to smoke, but I think if you are an adult, you are an adult," he added.
During the 2014 legislative session, the primary opponents of the bill were retail stores and entities that would lose revenues now earned from the sale of tobacco products.
Park City business owner Lois Hooker said she wouldn’t object to an increase in the legal purchasing age. Hooker is the owner of Cahoots in Park City, which sells cigars, vaporizers and other tobacco-related products.
"I’m totally fine with that," Hooker said. "But I do think it would be better if it were the same across the nation because it’s confusing, especially being a resort town, for people who travel and come here."
Rich Bullough, Summit County health director and president of the Utah Health Officials Association, said he supported the bill last year and still does.
"I think it would be a good thing," Bullough said. "There is no question that tobacco use costs money to taxpayers, to the government and to society."
The bill will likely be sent to the House standing committee sometime this week.
If HB130 is approved by both the House and the Senate and signed by the governor, it would go into effect on July 1, 2017.