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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah could become the first state in the nation to raise the legal smoking age to 21 if state lawmakers pass a bill that failed last year.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is proposing to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 19 to 21. Statistics show most adult smokers try cigarettes before age 21, he said.
"If we can delay that onset, we're probably going to see huge health benefits and financial benefits," Powell said. "I think it's a really simple, clear, impactful change."
The Utah Retail Merchants Association and the Utah Food Industry Association has opposed the bill in the past, arguing that if people are old enough to vote or enter the military, they're old enough to decide whether to smoke.
Association President Dave Davis said Tuesday the groups have not yet taken a position this year but intend to discuss the issue this week. He said convenience stores would be the most impacted by the proposed law.
The Utah Senate defeated the measure last year. Although senators agreed on the dangers of smoking, they said they couldn't support it for several reasons, including criminalizing smoking at that age, loss of tobacco tax revenue to the state, and personal responsibility.
HB130 will start this year in the House, where Powell hopes it will be assigned to a standing committee for a hearing in the next week to 10 days.
Powell said there are obviously some different views on the issue, including the idea of personal liberty. But he said he knows House members who support the bill because of tobacco's ill health effects. He also noted that the legal drinking age is now 21 in all 50 states.
Utah would be the first state to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21. The same legislation was introduced in Washington state and California this year.
Some cities and counties, including New York City and Hawaii County, have passed laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to those under 21.
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.
Powell has another bill, HB131, that clarifies that people under age 19 are prohibited from entering a tobacco shop unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee held the bill Tuesday for Powell to make some minor changes.