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Utah legislators nearly failed to approve an increase in the state's tax on cigarettes because of pressure from tobacco company lobbyists. If that were to happen, Utahns - who overwhelmingly support the increase, according to a recent Deseret News poll - could wonder whose interests are being served.

The measure to hike the state tobacco tax from 26.5 cents per pack to 31 cents and use the revenue to fund programs to educate youth about the dangers of tobacco use was nearly sent back to committee after being advanced to floor debate in the Utah House of Representatives.Though the bill had more than 30 co-sponsors and needed only 38 votes to pass in the House, lobbying efforts were nearly successful to have it returned to committee where opponents were poised to kill it.

It is shocking that tobacco company lobbyists have that kind of influence in a Republican-controlled Legislature when the recent poll shows 89 percent of Utah Republicans and 80 percent of residents in general support raising the tobacco tax this year.

This is not a year when tax increases are popular or necessary, in most cases. But a higher tax on tobacco would not only provide funding for needed education about the health risks of tobacco use, it may serve as a deterrent to teenagers who are being lured by corporate advertising to take up the habit.

Experience in Canada and elsewhere indicates increasing the cost of cigarettes keeps some young people from smoking because they simply can't afford it.

Both the education campaign and the deterrent of higher prices would most influence the young and highly impressive - those who are most susceptible to the deceptive lure of tobacco. Besides, Utah's tobacco tax is not high compared with similar taxes nationwide but ranks near the middle among all the states.

No one on Capitol Hill admits to being influenced by tobacco company lobbyists, and lobbyists aren't saying which lawmakers they've targeted. But certain legislators are obviously listening to someone - and it isn't their constituents.