Efforts by some lawmakers to create laws and taxes that could curb the use of tobacco and nicotine products have sputtered this session as some legislators note a deadline for passing bills is fast approaching.
Bills to raise the age to purchase tobacco, tax electronic cigarettes and designate Capitol Hill a smoke- and tobacco-free area have all struggled to gain traction as the 45-day legislative session passed the halfway point this week.
House members said they feared they’d create an unwelcoming atmosphere on Capitol Hill if they banned tobacco use by passing HB155, noting people are addicted to it.
“I have a lot of constituents and friends that have the tell-tale round mark in their pocket,” said Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, referring to the mark created in the pockets of frequent users of chewing tobacco. “My concern is do we create a situation where everybody has to show what’s in their container? If they have to leave their can in the car? Or pack of cigarettes?”
Two doctors in the House voted against HB155, though Rep. Michael Kennedy, an Alpine family physician and attorney, noted he doesn’t condone smoking.
HB296, a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco from 19 to 21, hasn’t been assigned to a standing committee with less than three weeks left in the session and a long line of bills already awaiting passage in the House and Senate. No such bill has passed in recent years over concerns by Republicans that they’d infringe on personal liberties.
Rep. Steve Eliason, a Sandy Republican and sponsor of HB296, said he’s committed to trying to pass the bill this session. But his Republican colleagues who say they may support the bill note time is quickly running out.
“If it’s stuck in Rules [Committee], we’re getting pretty late,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who said he’d support raising the age to purchase all tobacco to 21.
Lawmakers have struggled with raising the tobacco age in recent years despite supporters like the American Heart Association pointing out it could prevent young Utahns from becoming addicted to smoking.
Another bill, HB88, would put an excise tax on e-cigarettes, which scientists say are popular among young people who are then at a higher risk of switching to traditional cigarettes, which are known to be more harmful.
“These bills address the skyrocketing youth usage rates of tobacco products we have seen in the state,” said Marc Watterson, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association. “Both taxation and raising the age of sale are proven to be effective tools to help keep tobacco products out of the hands of kids.”
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee held HB88 in its first hearing Jan. 23 and it hasn’t appeared on an agenda since. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he’s still committed to passing the bill.
“We know the price point will keep kids from using,” said Ray, who was born with heart issues from his mother smoking while pregnant. “Big tobacco, they’re killing their clients. Electronic cigarettes is their route by which they’re going to addict a whole new generation of smokers.”
The American Heart Association’s priority for the session is for lawmakers to pass HB324, which Watterson said aims to strengthen siting requirements for tobacco shops. The issue came up last session, when a bill passed through the House but failed in the Senate in the final minutes of the session.
“We are continuing our work to pass legislation that will ensure tobacco shops are not allowed to open up right next to where our children learn, play, live and pray,” Watterson said.
Lawmakers take Monday off and haven’t yet scheduled committees through next week.
If any of the bills can reach the House floor, they may find support. But they’d then have to pass muster with the Senate before the March 8 deadline.