A proposal to boost Utah’s legal tobacco, e-cigarette age to 21 barely makes it out of a House committee

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Steve Eliason speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Aug. 21, 2018. Eliason is sponsoring HB324 to increase the legal age for tobacco and e-cigarettes from 19 to 21.

Legislation that would raise the age to 21 for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes in Utah narrowly advanced from a House committee Tuesday.

In a strange reversal of the expected, Rep. Steve Eliason’s bill had the support of retailers and JUUL Labs, an e-cigarette company, while drawing opposition from Utah’s local health departments.

Eliason told the House Business and Labor Committee that passing a so-called tobacco 21 law in Utah could help stop teens from getting addicted to nicotine while their brains are still developing.

“It’s no coincidence that 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 21,” Eliason, a Sandy Republican, said.

Increasing the smoking age from 19 to 21 could also prevent tobacco from making its way into high schools, where it’s often shared with underage teens, he argued.

Representatives from the Utah Medical Association and the Utah Retail Merchants Association were among those who supported the bill. Kirk Benge, executive director of public health in San Juan County, represented local health departments in applauding the concept of a tobacco 21 bill but opposing this particular version because of concerns that it would restrict their work.

“I think it’s a really weird, weird world that we’re living in when the health departments just got up and said that they didn’t support this particular bill,” Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network has also come out against the bill because, among other things, it leaves in place penalties for underage buyers. The organization argues that — because tobacco companies target young people — punishment should be reserved for retailers.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, echoed Benge’s concerns about local control and whether the bill would pre-empt cities and counties that want to establish their own laws.

Connor Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute, also spoke against the bill, HB324, because it would restrict people who have already reached adulthood. The legislation contains an exemption for members of the military, but the fact it needs such a carve-out illustrates the problem, Boyack said.

"We think adults should be able to be treated as adults," he testified.

Meanwhile, two cities in Utah — Lehi and Cedar Hills — are moving ahead with their own ordinances on the smoking age. Last week, Cedar Hills became the second city in Utah to increase the tobacco purchasing age from 19 to 21, and Eliason said passing his bill would prevent a “patchwork” of different laws from developing around the state if other local governments follow suit, as expected.

The committee voted 7-6 to give the bill a favorable recommendation and send it to the House floor. Eliason said he’s confident the proposal will fare well there, with more than half of House members already listed as co-sponsors.