Rep. Steve Eliason is pushing to raise Utah’s minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21 across the state, a move he hopes would prevent people from getting hooked on cigarettes and vape pens in their formative years.

But there’s some opposition to his legislation, and it’s coming from a somewhat surprising source — the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Yes, the action network supports increasing the smoking age, says Brook Carlisle, the group’s government relations director for Utah, even as it fights to increase the age through city ordinances.

Speak about Eliason’s bill, she said, “I think for us, the devil’s in the details."

Eliason, who’s sponsored similar legislation in the past, said he’s “befuddled” by pushback from the health advocates. The bulk of the action network's criticism relates not to what his bill would change but what it would leave the same, he notes.

“It’s an extremely unusual reason to oppose a bill that it leaves in place the current law, when it’s actually changing the most significant component of the law that they believe would prevent cancer,” Eliason, a Sandy Republican, said.

Existing law contains penalties for underage buyers of tobacco products, and while Eliason’s bill doesn’t touch those, the action network wants them removed. Carlisle argues that retailers, not young people, should be punished for illicit tobacco sales, especially considering the way cigarette and e-cigarette companies target underage buyers.

“We really feel like the tobacco industry spends so much time and so much money advertising and targeting children that turning around and punishing them for that advertising working just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said Thursday, during Utah Cancer Day at the Capitol.

The vast majority of adult smokers, about 95 percent, begin before the age of 21, and advocates hope raising the minimum age will prevent many from ever forming tobacco addictions. Six states — Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts — have already adopted so-called “tobacco 21” laws.

Jordan Osborne of South Jordan said he started vaping before he was 21 and later became a pack-a-week smoker. He’s since stopped smoking cigarettes, for the most part, but he supports a tobacco 21 law in Utah as a way to help others avoid nicotine addiction.

The law probably wouldn’t have prevented him from smoking entirely, he admits.

“But it would’ve given me a couple of years more where I could’ve been a lot healthier,” Osborne, 24, said.

Eliason said this year’s version of his bill, HB324, also raises the minimum age for e-cigarette purchases, something health advocates have requested.

But, to Carlisle’s dismay, Eliason’s legislation would phase in the age increases rather than going to 21 right away. The age for buying tobacco would increase to 20 on July 1, 2020, and then increase to 21 on January 1, 2021. Eliason said he decided to incorporate a transition period to minimize the number of people who’d have the ability to buy cigarettes one day and lose it the next.

However, Carlisle said the “sooner you can fully implement, the better.”

Meanwhile, two cities in Utah — Lehi and Cedar Hills — are moving ahead with their own ordinances. Tuesday night, Cedar Hills became the second city in Utah to increase the tobacco purchasing age from 19 to 21.

Eliason said there is some language in state law suggesting that cities are preempted from setting their own cigarette purchasing age. While Carlisle says the cancer action network’s legal advice suggests otherwise, she wishes Eliason’s legislation would do away with the state preemption language so that the authority of local governments would be more clear.

Eliason said he doesn’t think the cancer action network’s criticism is a dealbreaker for the bill, which has yet to receive a committee hearing, and he said confused colleagues have approached him trying to understand the group’s opposition.

“And I tell them I don’t know."

Editor’s note: Brook Carlisle is the spouse of a Salt Lake Tribune reporter.