Utah legislator is again trying to raise the smoking age to 21 — but similar efforts have fizzled in the past

FILE - In this Thursday, May 18, 2017 file photo, packs of cigarettes are offered for sale at a convenience store in Helena, Mont. Tobacco companies have made claims about “safer” cigarettes since the 1950s, all later proven false. In some cases the introduction of these products, such as filtered and “low tar” cigarettes, propped up cigarette sales and kept millions of Americans smoking. Although the adult smoking rate has fallen to an all-time low of 15 percent in 2017, smoking remains the nation's leading preventable cause of death and illness, responsible for about one in five U.S. deaths. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)

Utah 19- and 20-year-olds would be barred from smoking by 2020 under a bill a Sandy Republican filed this week in the latest attempt to raise the age to legally possess tobacco products to 21.

Rep. Steve Eliason’s HB296 was made public Thursday. The bill would hike the legal tobacco age from 19 to 20 in July 2019 and 21 by New Year’s Day 2020.

Five states have raised the tobacco possession age to 21: Hawaii, Oregon, California, Maine and New Jersey. Hundreds of cities have enacted local laws that raise the age limit to access tobacco, but none are in Utah, according to Tobacco 21, a group that advocates for hiking the smoking age limit nationwide.

Proposals for a statewide age-hike in Utah have failed each time they’ve been filed.

Bills have run into opposition from libertarian-leaning lawmakers who view smoking as a choice, albeit a harmful one, that Utahns can make for themselves. Supporters note that tens of thousands of young Utahns smoke every year.

HB130 in 2015 died after not receiving a hearing. HB157 in 2016 failed to pass out of committee. Both would have raised the smoking age from 19 to 21 without the phase-in proposed in Eliason’s bill this year.

Past proposals would have cost the state between $2 million and $3 million in foregone taxes, analysts estimated. Proponents point out that the savings from avoided health problems related to smoking would be much greater.

Both lawmakers who proposed the age hikes in past sessions – Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City and Sen. Brian Shiozawa of Cottonwood Heights – have since left the Legislature.

Several of the legislators who opposed past efforts remain, including Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

“There’s this constant push every year to legislate that teens aren’t adults until 21,” Weiler said Thursday. “If that’s the case, then let’s change the draft to 21 and everything else.”

Weiler bristled at observations that the drinking age limit, which is 21, is higher than the the current smoking limit. He said drinking leads to choices that can harm others. (Secondhand smoke from traditional cigarettes also harms nonsmokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

“We’ve got 18-, 19- and 20-year-old enlisted soldiers at Hill Air Force Base who could be sent into combat at a moment’s notice,” he said, “but they aren’t old enough to smoke?”