In February, Lehi was the first city in Utah to raise the age to 21 to purchase tobacco. The State of Utah soon followed suit, passing its own legislation in March. Now, several of Utah’s federal officials are supportive of federal legislation to standardize the legal age to purchase tobacco across the country.
Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat representing Utah’s 4th Congressional District and Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican representing Utah’s 2nd Congressional District have both signed on as co-sponsors to the Tobacco to 21 Act, which would raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has also been supportive of the Tobacco to 21 Act, helping to introduce companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.
McAdams and Utah Rep. Steve Eliason, who sponsored the tobacco legislation passed in Utah, spoke at a press conference Tuesday at the Utah County Health Department about the need to change the legal purchasing age of tobacco at a federal level.
“Utah has been a leader in this regard,” McAdams said. “...The rest of the country should follow Utah’s lead.”
McAdams cited nicotine’s addictive nature and link to many serious illnesses that can cause death, saying that in Utah alone, more than 1,300 people die each year from tobacco use. About 4% of high school students in Utah still smoke, McAdams said, and exposure of adolescent brains to nicotine has lasting effects on cognitive abilities.
The pervasiveness of the issue is not only claiming lives, but also driving up health care costs, McAdams said.
“At a time when Utahns worry about rising health care costs, this is common sense,” McAdams said. “And it’s a step that we can take to prevent illness and the associated costs of treating people with smoking-related diseases.”
UCHD director Ralph Clegg also spoke in support of the policy, saying that it’s known these types of policies work. In Massachusetts, Clegg said, there was a 48% drop in high school smoking rates after a similar law was passed.
Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson said he first started working to change the legal age to purchase tobacco in his city after attending a dinner with the UCHD. One statistic in particular that stuck out to him was that most tobacco products getting into the hands of kids were purchased by people between ages 18 and 21.
“That, to me, indicated not the behavior of an adult brain,” Johnson said. “And the dangers of that were pretty obvious to me.”
Corbin Cowan, who will be a sophomore at Lehi High School this coming school year, said he truly believes this policy will help keep tobacco out of the hands of kids. Someone who is 19 usually still has a lot of friends who are in high school. A 21-year-old probably doesn’t have those same connections.
“I feel like passing this on a national level will keep even more youth safe,” Cowan said.
About 90% of smokers try their first tobacco product by the age of 18, McAdams said. But if someone hasn’t started using tobacco by the age of 26, they are likely to never start.
“We can impact the number of and amount of tobacco usage significantly through federal legislation,” McAdams said.