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SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah lawmakers want to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 19 to 21, which would match the minimum age for drinking alcohol.
Statistics show that most young people become addicted to cigarettes after age 20 or 21, even though they first try smoking earlier, said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City.
"If we can make sure that we keep them away from what everybody now admits are substances with no redeeming value, then I think we'll be able to protect a lot of people from health damage and protect society from hundreds of millions of dollars in costs," he said.
Powell and Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, will present the proposal to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday. In addition to cigarettes, the bill would raise the age for buying smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.
The Utah Retail Merchants Association opposes the measure and questions whether it would stop underage smoking.
Federal law bans the sale of tobacco to people under age 18, though four states —Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah — increased the age to 19. Utah lawmakers raised the age to make it clear that high school students couldn't legally smoke on campus.
Association president Dave Davis said one argument in favor of the change says the age should be the same for cigarettes and alcohol. But he said while scientific evidence shows drinking has a negative effect on a developing brain, there's none to suggest smoking is any worse for someone at 19 than 21.
"For us, the fundamental question is: What role do you want government to play in this process?" Davis said. "If I'm old enough to vote, if I'm old enough to be drafted and fight for my country, am I old enough to make a decision as to whether or not to engage in smoking?"
Reid called the change a "logical and reasonable" thing to do. Drugs are against the law, the legal drinking age is 21, "yet we think nothing of letting a 19- or 20-year-olds suck something into their lungs that's going to kill them."
Davis said, "It sort of begs the question: Why not set the age at 35 or 25?"
The two legislators also say the higher age would curb smoking among teens who get cigarettes from friends just old enough to buy them.
Davis doubts that. "I don't think that there's any evidence that that will make a difference with that population," he said.
Since 2001, illegal sales of tobacco to underage young people in Utah have declined 6 percent, and the number of high school students who have tried cigarettes has dropped 41 percent since 1999, according to the Utah Department of Health.
A 2012 health department report shows 5.9 percent of high school students smoke and 3.7 percent use chewing tobacco.
Nearly all tobacco use starts in childhood and adolescence, with 88 percent of daily adult smokers taking their first puffs by age 18, according to a 2012 surgeon general report.
"Of every three young smokers, only one will quit, and one of those remaining smokers will die from tobacco-related causes," according to the report, "Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults."