WASHINGTON — Ask Americans which of the 50 states is the toughest on tobacco and smoking, and odds are that most would probably guess Utah.
After all, it is well known as headquarters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is famous for teaching its members for the past 170 years not to use tobacco — long before that became widely accepted as wise in recent decades.
But the American Lung Association did something surprising when it issued a new report card for states and their tobacco laws. It gave Utah three F's and one C in the four categories rated.
It hit Utah with an F for how well its laws prevent "second-hand smoke" for non-smokers; an F for laws about restricting access by youth to tobacco; an F for its spending on tobacco prevention and control; and a C for its level of cigarette taxes.
With that, Utah astonishingly has among the lowest grades of any state for fighting tobacco, which is something akin to Karl Malone flunking a basketball class or George W. Bush flunking political science.
So why is the American Lung Association trying to send Utah's anti-tobacco reputation up in smoke?
Maybe too much zeal in its fight against what it sees as a mass murderer has made it too tough of a grader.
For example, Utah law specifically bans smoking in these public places: offices, shops, schools, health-care facilities, elevators, restrooms, public transportation, shopping malls, retail stores, grocery stores, arcades, libraries, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries, planetariums, historical sites, auditoriums, arenas, barber shops, hair salons, laundromats, sports or fitness facilities, most private workplaces (although some smoking areas may be allowed in designated areas), and any area where the proprietor has posted a "no smoking" sign.
That's not enough for the lung association. It wrote, "Much more needs to be done. Smoke-free environments must be expanded to airports, bars and clubs, and other work places."
On top of that, the lung association subtracted about half of Utah's points in the "smoke-free air" grading category because it does not allow cities and counties to pass tougher anti-smoking laws than the state itself. Utah otherwise would have had an A.
Instead Utah flunked, as did 43 other states and the District of Columbia. Only two states had A's — California and Delaware. They had perfect scores. The lung association handed out only two B's in that category, one C and one D.
When it comes to limiting access by youth to tobacco, Utah's efforts include prohibiting selling to minors; banning sales to anyone through vending machines; and restricting the free distribution of cigarettes.
But Utah flunked (with 28 states) because the association complained it doesn't have a statewide agency enforcing youth access laws; doesn't require merchants to request photo identification of customers who appear younger than 21 (although most do); doesn't by law require random unannounced inspections; and doesn't allow tougher local ordinances to preempt state law.
Likewise, Utah received an F (as did 32 states) on the amount it spends for tobacco prevention and control spending. Utah spends about $6 million a year on it. The lung association said the Centers on Disease Control figures Utah should be spending between $15 million and $33 million for adequate programs.
Utah received a C for having a cigarette tax of 69.5 cents per pack, even though that is higher than the national average of 62 cents. The lung association likes high taxes, figuring they discourage smoking. To earn an A, Utah would have had to charge more than $1.23 a pack. For a B, it would have had to charge between 93 cents and a $1.23.
It's easy to see why advocacy groups such as the American Lung Association want the toughest action possible against tobacco. It figures that each year, smoking kills 159.8 people per 100,000 Utah residents — and costs the Utah economy $517 million.
But Utah isn't exactly flunking the fight either, even if it could do more. Ask almost any other American. And maybe ask the lung association what it has been smoking, too.
Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com