A high school student, who asked not to be named, smokes Thursday across from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo. Bills in the Colorado and Utah legislatures would raise the states' minimum smoking age to 21.

AP photo

A high school student, who asked not to be named, smokes Thursday across from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo. Bills in the Colorado and Utah legislatures would raise the states' minimum smoking age to 21.

States consider tougher smoking laws

By Kristen Wyatt
and Michelle L. Price

The Associated Press

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DENVER – Two Western states with some of the nation’s lowest smoking rates are considering cracking down even more by raising the tobacco age to 21.

Utah and Colorado lawmakers voted favorably on proposals Thursday to treat tobacco like alcohol and take it away from 18- to 20-year-olds, a move inspired by new research on how many smokers start the habit as teenagers.

“By raising the age limit, it puts them in a situation where they’re not going to pick it up until a much later age,” said Marla Brannum of Lehi, Utah, who testified there in favor of the bill.

In Colorado, the testimony was similar: Pushing the tobacco age could make it harder for teens to access tobacco and possibly reduce use rates among adults.

“What I’m hoping to do is make it harder for kids to obtain cigarettes,” state Rep. Cheri Gerou, a Republican who sponsored the measure, said.

Both proposals face several more votes. But they’re the furthest any states have gone to curb access to cigarettes by young people.

Dr. Robert West, director of tobacco studies at University College London, didn’t know of other countries considering a tobacco age threshold of 21, but he said raising the tobacco age from 16 to 18 in the United Kingdom proved to be “a public health winner.”

Altria Group, owner of the nation’s biggest cigarette company, Philip Morris USA, did not immediately provide comment.

A paper published in 2013 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine said that 9 out of 10 daily smokers in the United States have their first cigarette by age 18, and that about 90 percent of cigarettes purchased for minors are bought by people 18 to 20 years old.

The Washington-based Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids advocates the higher smoking age and argues that it could make a serious dent in tobacco deaths down the road.

“We see this as sort of an added step to reducing smoking rates,” in addition to higher tobacco taxes and other curbs, campaign Vice President Peter Fisher said.

Armando Peruga, program manager of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said he supports the U.S. proposal, provided that it would be strictly enforced and that it was accompanied by other tobacco control measures, such as high taxes and smoke-free regulations.

“It needs to be part of a comprehensive policy to counter the tobacco industry’s influence on young people,” Peruga said.

Utah and three other states – Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey – already require tobacco purchasers to be 19.

Fisher said that 21-for-tobacco bills also are pending in the legislatures in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Maryland lawmakers considered and rejected the idea this year. New York City last year raised the tobacco age to 21, as did Hawaii County, Hawaii.

Utah already has the nation’s lowest smoking rate, about 12 percent in 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Colorado isn’t far behind, at about 18 percent in 2011.

Despite the low rates, health advocates in both states testified that a higher tobacco age could depress the rates even further.

“Moving it to later, obviously we can help reduce use,” said Bob Doyle, head of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance.

When the legal age of smoking was raised from 16 to 18 in Great Britain, there was a significant drop in the number of people who started smoking, West said.

“The ages from 18 to 21 is a period of huge uptake and even if you’re able to delay (teenagers) from starting smoking rather than preventing it altogether, there would be a significant health benefit,” he said. “You’re essentially allowing the rather scrambled adolescent brain to settle down and avoid smoking during that period before they turn 21, after which they might decide they absolutely do not want to smoke anyways.”

Associated Press’ writer Maria Cheng contributed to this report from London.