SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers have often looked at raising the age for smoking from 19 to 21, only to have efforts snuffed out without a floor vote. But when Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB324 this past week, Utah became the eighth state to further restrict access to tobacco products.
HB324 succeeded, its sponsor says, thanks in no small part to the rise in vaping.
"Health groups didn’t want to support the bill without that in it," according to Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.
In Utah, which has lower teen smoking rates than many states, health department reports show recent use of e-cigs by 11.1 percent of teens surveyed in eighth, 10th and 12th grades — a number that doubled in the last five years. Fewer than 3 percent reported using actual cigarettes.
This is the third year Eliason has run a bill to raise the minimum age for using tobacco products, and at least the sixth year the Utah Legislature discussed the issue. It is the first time it made it out of committee.
Eliason said a main change he made was to include e-cigarettes. That move garnered the support of the Heart Association, the Huntsman Cancer Institute — and tobacco companies.
"The fact that the tobacco companies came out and supported federal tobacco 21 legislation was huge, and this is the first year the retailers association didn’t oppose it," Eliason said.
Utah will be joining more than 400 cities and counties and seven other states — California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine and Virginia — that enforce a smoking age set at 21.
Federal law sets the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products at 18, which most states still follow. Utah lowered the smoking age from 21 to 19 in 1963, and as of September 2018, was one of only three states with the age set at 19.
Eliason said he introduced the bill because health department officials told him it was the most important thing he could do for public health. According to his research, some of the cities and states that raised the smoking age saw more than a 50 percent reduction in youth tobacco rates.
Juan Bravo, of the Utah Vapor Business Association, said the group backed the bill because it doesn't want its products to be used by minors.
"I think it's important to remember that these are adult products for adult smokers, so as such we're all for taking any steps that would keep these products out of the hands of kids," Bravo said.
He said any impact from the change will be mitigated by the age being raised incrementally. In July 2020, only those 20 and older will be able to buy tobacco or vape products in Utah. In July 2021, the age rises to 21.
"That way we don’t have consumers who are of legal vaping age this year all of a sudden not be able to legally purchase the product," Bravo said.
Another factor for the bill's success may have been pressure from cities wanting to create their own age limit.
Lehi and Cedar Hills in Utah County both passed ordinances raising the age for purchase to 21 earlier this year, and Provo passed a resolution in support of the bill.
Marc Watterson with the American Heart Association said the move by Lehi and Cedar Hills "helped pave the way" for the Legislature to advance the bill. He said this was the sixth year he has advocated on the issue in Utah.
"We’re really grateful for the leadership in Lehi and Cedar Hills for their efforts to stand out and recognize this as a community need," Watterson said.
Near the beginning of the 2019 legislative session, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network spoke out against the bill.
Brook Carlisle, government relations director, said group members "still don't like it" because of punishments for youth offenders.
She said the group favored a "minor tweak" during the legislative process that took out the misdemeanor charge for teens, but it still penalizes minors for possessing and purchasing tobacco. Those penalties are part of the language that was already in Utah code.
Carlisle also voiced concern with the exemption for members of the military and their spouses and dependents.
"If you look at the tobacco use rates among active duty military and even among veterans, they are significantly higher than the general population. We know the military is doing their best to reduce tobacco use among their ranks," Carlisle said.
She said the exemption doesn't align with the goals of the Department of Defense, or help keep military members healthy.
Eliason noted the new law strengthens the military exemption in Utah code, which allowed members of the military to purchase tobacco at 18 but not possess it. He said the Department of Defense contacted him and asked for the change so military would not be cited for possession of tobacco when off the base.
Eliason agreed that he wants soldiers to be healthy, but "the biochemistry of addiction really has nothing to do with defending your country," he said, adding that the transient nature of military service is another reason for the exemption.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network also spoke out against the pre-emption clause, which prevents cities from enforcing different age limits but brought support from tobacco retailers.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said it was key that an age limit be statewide.
"If you’re a convenience store and you’re operating in many different jurisdictions it … becomes administratively problematic to have multiple different ages depending on where they are," Davis said.
He acknowledged it would cut down the amount of tobacco products sold because the law decreases the number of people who can legally buy tobacco.
Room to improve
Ryan Bartlett of the Utah Department of Health said the main benefit is the law will create a barrier between 18-year-olds and those who can purchase tobacco, which will help keep vape products out of high schools.
"Just as in the rest of the country, we’ve seen a significant rise in the use of vape products in high schools and among youth in Utah over the past few years, and that’s something we’re very concerned about," Bartlett said.
Watterson, of the heart association, said people under 21 account for about 2 percent of tobacco sales, but supply most of the tobacco to underage teens.
"Our hope is that by increasing the age that we’ll be able to better prevent youth from starting to use tobacco products, which will help set them up for a lifetime free of these potential addictions," Watterson said.
But he noted there is still room to improve Utah's tobacco laws.
"We see this as not necessarily a silver bullet but just one of the many different things that states and local municipalities can do to curtail the epidemic rates of tobacco usage that we see," Watterson said.
Carlisle agreed, saying Utah has strong indoor clean air laws, but the state's tobacco control program is not funded at recommended levels and Utah hasn't increased the tobacco tax, which is below the national average, in a decade.
"We know high tobacco taxes reduce tobacco use, not only high taxes, but taxes that are increased at regular intervals," Carlisle said.
Two other bills aimed to address youth vaping passed through the House but did not make it to the Senate floor. HB252 was meant to raise the tax on vaping products to match the tax on other tobacco products and HB274 would have limited where flavored vaping products could be sold.