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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney with a New Mexico senator on Thursday presented a bill to keep electronic cigarettes and other vaping systems away from educational and child care facilities across the country, saying youth use has reached epidemic levels.
"In my home state of Utah, the use of electronic cigarettes has nearly doubled in the last five years, with young Utahns most likely to be introduced to vaping while they are in school," Romney, R-Utah, said. "By banning the use of electronic cigarettes in schools, we are taking an important step to protect the health of young people in Utah and across the nation."
Utah has already taken action, with its Indoor Clean Air Act, to ban smoking cigarettes or e-cigarettes within 25 feet of the entrance to any building with public access, including schools and child care centers, among other places that people frequent.
"A lot of states don't have that," said Ryan Bartlett, with the Utah Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. He said Romney is likely taking something that has worked in Utah and trying to get it implemented at the national level.
Bartlett said that no matter where a policy is enacted, a bill like the Smoke-Free Schools Act of 2019 "would be beneficial."
"It would be good for us to see this implemented in other places to keep more people, including youth, healthy," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a nearly 48 percent increase in e-cigarette use among middle schoolers from 2017 to 2018, and a nearly 78 percent increase among high-schoolers during the same time.
It is estimated that there are about 3.6 million "current users" of e-cigarettes in America's middle and high schools, according to the CDC, including an increase of 1.5 million in one year.
Romney and Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, say that studies have confirmed health risks associated with nicotine use and addiction among kids.
Utah tobacco laws already include regulations on marketing and selling to minors, including restrictions on flavored cartridges, which have repeatedly been blamed as attractants to youth.
"Some kids are starting really young," Bartlett said, adding that the chemicals contained in e-cigarette cartridges have been shown to be harmful to young brains. The U.S. Surgeon General, he said, has warned against exposure to even secondhand smoke for people under age 25, whose brain synapses are still developing, according to research.
"It's especially important in younger people," Bartlett said.
Earlier this year, Utah lawmakers voted to increase the age that minors can purchase tobacco and nicotine products in the state, including e-cigarettes and the cartridges that go with them, to 21.
The age restriction will be phased into law over then next two years and will be fully in effect in 2021.
Utah will join more than 400 cities and counties and seven other states — California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine and Virginia — where the enforced smoking age is 21.
Federal law sets the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products at 18, which most states still follow. Utah lowered the legal smoking age from 21 to 19 in 1963, and as of September 2018, it was one of only three states with the legal age set at 19.
The Romney-Udall bill amends the Pro-Children Act of 2001, which imposes restrictions on smoking in facilities where federally funded children’s services are provided, to include e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems.
The legislation has support from national education groups, including the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Parent Teacher Association, the Society for Public Health Education, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the School Superintendents Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the American Lung Association and New Mexico PTA.
"Although many teens use e-cigarettes because they think they are cool, the facts show they present a major health hazard," said Elaine Auld, CEO of the Society for Public Health Education. "Schools have a vital role to play in educating students about good health habits, and banning e-cigarettes in these educational settings gets at the heart of prevention."