ST. GEORGE — While Utah passed a law earlier this year raising the legal smoking age to 21 over the next two years, a Utah congressman and senator have joined others seeking to impose the same age restriction on the national level.
U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mitt Romney have both come out in support of the “Tobacco to 21 Act” which will raise the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21 nationwide.
“Combating tobacco use by children has been a priority of mine since first taking office,” Stewart said in a statement issued April 30. “I truly believe that it is an epidemic among our youth. I am confident that this bill will significantly reduce underage tobacco usage and ultimately save lives.”
While targeting tobacco products, both the Utah law and proposed federal legislation also include electronic cigarettes and associated products.
The Office of the Surgeon General describes tobacco use among youth ages 12 through 17 as an “epidemic” with over 600,000 middle school students and 3 million high school students across the nation estimated to smoke cigarettes.
According to data referenced by Stewart’s office, each day more than 2,000 youth under 18 smoke their first cigarette. For those who become teenage smokers, the habit opens them up to a possible premature death from a tobacco-related illness if efforts aren’t made to end underage smoking.
“Increasing the minimum legal sale age will help prevent young people from starting down a path that often leads to addiction, disease, and premature death,” according to a statement from Stewart’s office.
Romney officially joined what has since become known as the “Tobacco 21” bandwagon May 8.
“What we know is that tobacco damages the human body,” the senator said in a statement. “What we know is that tobacco kills people. We know the people that are hooked on tobacco end up taking home less pay every week because of the cost of tobacco. We also know that tobacco use is costing our nation billions upon billions of dollars—a loss of life, a loss of funds.”
It makes sense to find ways to help prevent youth from getting hooked on tobacco, Romney said, yet added some young people don’t always have the best perspective or experience when it comes to making decisions that can have long-term impacts.
“For that reason, it makes all the sense in the world to make it illegal for young people to purchase these products, so that we can help them during a time when their judgment is not as clear as it might be,” he said. “Older people typically have figured out that tobacco products make no sense at all,”
One Southern Utah business owner who is not impressed with the state law and proposed federal law is Brendan Gunn, the owner of the Cloud 9 Vapor shop in Washington City.
“I’d strongly support the bill if it was structured fairly,” Gunn said. His objection to the legislation is the concept that a person considered responsible enough to smoke at 21, yet not at 18 when they’re considered responsible and clear-minded enough to go to war or be prosecuted for a serious crime.
While the Utah law makes exemptions for active-duty and veteran military personnel between 18 and 20, Gunn called it a “half-measure.”
Once the state law goes into full effect, or when the federal law potentially passes, it will create a minority of smokers ages 18-20 who are then seen as breaking the law, Gunn said. “It’s not fair across the board,” he added.
Gunn said he wishes the customers at Cloud 9 were just those people who were looking for a smoking alternative, and not others who could be potentially buying the product for underage users. The latter action is something Gunn said he certainly does not support.
“We feel we’ve been very responsible,” Gunn said.
Tobacco specialty shops like Cloud 9 have to get their retailer permit from the Southwest Utah Health Department. From time to time the health department will send undercover agents to the specialty shops in the area to see if any product is sold to minors.
In relation to vaping, the Southwest Utah Health Department issued a statement in February that 37% of Washington County 12th graders have reported using e-cigarette products.
“Vape products disproportionately harm youth,” Kye Nordfelt, SWUPHD health promotion director said in the February statement. “While some may argue that e-cigarettes are intended only for adults and can be an effective tool to stop smoking, studies show that twice as many teens than adults vape in southwest Utah. Their popularity is leading toward another generation of nicotine addicts.”
Nordfelt told St. George News Wednesday both the state law and proposed federal legislation “is a great thing.”
An estimated 95% of adults smokers started before they were 21, he said, and that it is a push of the health department to attempt to delay tobacco use among the youth. This is primarily due to brain chemistry, as nicotine from cigarettes can impact a still developing brain to become “wired for addiction,” he said.
“This policy sends a clear message to our youth,” Nordfelt said. “It’s just not allowed until you’re older.”
Through its Washington County Youth Coalition, the health department has been very vocal about fighting youth smoking and vape use. Through the coalition the health department was able to get the Washington County Commission to ban smoking at the Washington County Regional Park fairgrounds in 2017.
The health department also pushed for a ban on area cities approving the opening of new tobacco specialty shops. St. George and other cities have done this, including Washington City which issued the ban early last year.
“In my home state, the legislature figured this out, was one of the first states in the nation to say we’re going to raise the smoking age to 21, and they did so because they saw what was happening with vaping,” Romney said.
“Vaping has doubled in young people in my state. This is the same trend we’re seeing across the country. This is one step we can take. There are more steps that we need to take but this is a critical step. It will save lives, it will improve the health of our citizens. It will also save billions of dollars. Let’s get this done.”
Other congressional figures supporting the Tobacco to 21 Act include Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Dick Durbin, D-Illinios; Todd Young, R-Indiana; and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado.
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