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SALT LAKE CITY — Saying it would save lives, reduce health care costs and keep kids from getting hooked on cigarettes, a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Mitt Romney, touted their bill Wednesday to raise the legal age for tobacco use to 21.
Romney, R-Utah, said he joined the bipartisan effort to pass the Tobacco to 21 Act because of "what we know."
"What we know is that tobacco damages the human body. What we know is tobacco kills people," he said at a news conference in Washington.
The legislation introduced last week would prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21 nationwide.
"Our bill is clean. It is simple. It is free of loopholes," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
Hawaii in 2016 was the first among a dozen states that raised the legal tobacco age to 21.
The Utah Legislature voted earlier this year to incrementally raise the age for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. The law changes the age from 19 to 20 on July 1, 2020, and to 21 one year later.
About 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21.
Tobacco use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among high school and middle schools student rose 36 percent from 2017 to 2018, largely due to vaping, Schatz said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said e-cigarette use among children has been rising at "alarming" rates because of kid-friendly flavoring. He doesn't buy tobacco and vaping companies' claims that flavored e-cigarettes are designed to help adults quit smoking, rattling off a list of flavors such as fruity medley, cotton candy and marshmallow.
"Does that sound like something that's designed for children or adults. I think it's clear," Durbin said.
Romney said young people don't always have the perspective or experience for making choices.
"For that reason, it makes all the sense in the world to make illegal for young people to purchase these products so that we can help them during a time when their judgment is not as clear as it might be," he said. "Older people typically have figured out that tobacco makes no sense at all."
Senators said tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the country and, according to the CDC, smoking-related illnesses cost more than $300 billion a year
An estimated 1,300 people die from smoking-related diseases every day in the U.S.
National Academy of Medicine research shows raising the tobacco age to 21 nationwide would reduce the number of new users, decrease smoking frequency by 12 percent, and save more than 220,000 lives from deaths related to smoking.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., have introduced a similar bill in the House.