Utah lawmaker looks to tackle state tobacco use

Utah lawmaker looks to tackle state tobacco use

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A state lawmaker who says he's been personally affected by cigarette use has plans this legislative session to make it more challenging for Utahns to use tobacco.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring three bills that, if passed, would raise the tobacco tax and ban some nicotine products in the state. On Tuesday, the Utah House approved an amendment to remove electronic cigarettes from one of the bills.

"My philosophy is: The more tobacco companies want to fight, the bigger fight I'll bring to them," Ray said.

The issue is close to Ray's heart. He had four surgeries on a defective heart valve, which he says is the result of his mother smoking while pregnant with him. She suffers from emphysema and has had tumors removed from her lungs. In 2001, Ray's father dies from heart disease caused by smoking.

"It motivates you," Ray said. "You go through what I've gone through, it makes you step back and take a look at life."

In a 2009 report, the Utah Department of Health said that nearly 1,150 Utahns die every year because they smoke. At a recent committee hearing, Ray likened tobacco companies to "street-level drug dealers."

One of Ray's bills targets nicotine candies, which Ray said aren't currently on the market in Utah. But he said he hopes the bill will give the state a head start in blocking their sale.

The bill originally banned electronic cigarettes, which emit a trace of smokeless nicotine, but smokers at a committee hearing last week said a ban could stymie their efforts to cut back or quit the habit.

"I enjoy this thing because it has replaced cigarettes for me completely," said West Point resident Brian Livingston.

That bill also said that if the Food and Drug Administration deems a product therapeutic, its ban would be lifted.

A second bill sponsored by Ray would ban the sale of tobacco "paraphernalia" to minors -- products such as bongs, but not matches or lighters. The third measure, which Ray has sponsored for the third straight year, would increase the state tobacco tax from 69.5 cents per pack to about $1.70 a pack.

"Every household in Utah pays $535 dollars in taxes every year (on average) to cover the Medicaid cost for smokers, so this is a taxpayer issue, too," Ray said.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA Inc., said this type of tax increase could adversely affect small businesses in the state.

He said that in a typical convenience store, cigarettes account for about a third of all sales and that there are more than 1,600 retailers in Utah that sell cigarettes.

"Given the economic situation in the country, small businesses are struggling," Phelps said. "Creating an additional obstacle to them in their business, we think doesn't make a lot of sense."

Ray said this year's budget shortfall has lessened the traditional aversion to hiking the tobacco tax and that some of his fellow lawmakers are starting to prickle at the amount of money the state spends on smokers.

"Some of those who were on the fence last year are coming around," Ray said.


House Bill 71 targets nicotine candies. House Bill 206 bans the sale of tobacco paraphernalia. House Bill 196 proposes raising the state tobacco tax.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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