PROVO — Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, joined state and local officials Tuesday to highlight his support for federal efforts to raise the age to buy tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to 21 years old.
McAdams signed on as a co-sponsor last month to the "Tobacco to 21 Act," introduced in the U.S. House in April by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, is one of six original co-sponsors of the bill.
"It's a movement that's gaining traction," McAdams said. Even before the 2019 Utah Legislature passed a state law that phases in the age requirement, two Utah County communities, Lehi and Cedar Hills, already put the restriction in place.
Now, McAdams said, it's time for Washington, D.C., to act.
"It is a cheap and effective way to save lives and save money for the taxpayer," he said, citing the impact on health care costs. "The states have led out and shown that. I think it's time for a national standard."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of four senators behind the Senate version of the bill, tweeted he was "Glad to have @RepBenMcAdams join us in pushing for federal #Tobacco21 legislation. I look forward to working together to get this legislation passed by Congress and signed into law."
Last week, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions advanced key components of the Senate bill.
Romney said in a statement then he looks “forward to continuing work with my colleagues to keep harmful tobacco products out of our children’s hands and protect them from a lifetime of addiction.”
More than 400 other cities, counties and states, including Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, have set the legal age for buying tobacco products at 21.
Utah, one of only a few states with a legal age of 19, is raising it to 20 next year and 21 in 2021, as a result of HB324, sponsored last session by state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who had tried and failed twice before to change the age limit.
"It phases it in as soon as possible so somebody who hasn't already started to smoke will be shut out," Eliason said. He said he got the idea when health officials attending a statewide conference all told him they wanted the age limit raised.
Nationally, Eliason said, about one American dies every minute from tobacco-related illnesses, while every day, about 350 young people start smoking and about one-third will end up losing their lives as a result of using the product.
"It's sound policy," he said of raising the age limit to 21 nationwide. "It makes sense to do it at the city, the state and the federal level because it puts them on a level playing field. What's fair about addicting them?"
Stewart and Romney said in a May op-ed for the Deseret News that "Washington can learn from Utah's example by passing the Tobacco to 21 Act and protecting our children from a lifetime of addiction."
Cedar Hills Mayor Jenney Rees said there was "quite a bit of support" for raising the age for buying tobacco in her community when the policy was adopted at the beginning of the year.
"We heard from the schools it's a problem," Rees said, because students were able to get access to tobacco from slighter older peers who used to be legally able to purchase them, often from stores across the street from Lone Peak High School.
"We haven't had any issues in our community" with the change, she said, calling the proposed federal law a good place to start "if we're looking to have healthier communities, if we're looking to control our health care spending."
Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg said a Massachusetts city saw underage tobacco use drop by nearly half after making a similar adjustment to the legal age to buy it.
"We know strong policies on tobacco benefit our youth," Clegg said.