ST. GEORGE — Utah Congressman Chris Stewart met with the Washington County Youth Prevention Coalition in St. George Friday to discuss the Tobacco to 21 Act, which aims to cement 21 as the legal age to buy tobacco products nationwide.
“Having this hour with these kids is the funnest thing I’ll do today,” Stewart, R-Utah, said as he spoke of how impressed he was with the high school students who make up the youth coalition. “There are some very impressive young people here today.”
The Washington County Youth Prevention Coalition is a group sponsored by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department that is vocal about fighting youth tobacco use in any form.
Coalition members shared firsthand experiences with Stewart about seeing cigarettes being distributed to younger students.
“There are a lot of kids who are 18 in high school that are selling to underage students who are their friends,” said Ellie Sandstorm, a coalition member and Snow Canyon High School student.
One purpose of the Tobacco to 21 Act is to help cut off accessibility younger teens have to tobacco products though their 18- to 19-year-old peers.
Not many younger teens are likely to have a 21-year-old person in their circle of friends to buy them tobacco products, Stewart said.
Utah passed its own tobacco age-restriction law earlier this year raising the legal purchasing age to 21 by 2021. However, there is an exemption for military personnel between 18 and 20. The Tobacco to 21 Act doesn’t allow for such an exemption.
“It’s important to me because I see it everywhere,” 17-year-old Youth Coalition member Aubrey Ford said. “We’re the ones who get pressured into it. We’re the ones who are around it more often.”
Ford also called tobacco a gateway drug, saying she has seen it lead to narcotics use among her peers.
The Office of the Surgeon General describes tobacco use among youth ages 12 through 17 as an “epidemic,” with over 600,000 middle school students and 3 million high school students across the nation estimated to smoke cigarettes.
“This is unhealthy for anyone at any age,” Stewart said.
According to data referenced by Stewart’s office, each day more than 2,000 youth under 18 smoke their first cigarette. For those who become teenage smokers, the habit opens them up to a possible premature death from tobacco-related illnesses.
In relation to vaping, the Southwest Utah Health Department issued a statement in February saying 37% of Washington County 12th graders have reported using e-cigarette products.
One Southern Utah business owner who is not impressed with the proposed federal law is Brendan Gunn, the owner of the Cloud 9 Vapor shop in Washington City.
“I’d strongly support the bill if it was structured fairly,” Gunn said.
He says he objects to the idea that a person is considered responsible enough to smoke at 21, yet not at 18, when they’re supposed to be considered responsible and clear-minded enough to go to war or be prosecuted for a serious crime.
The Tobacco to 21 Act has seen bipartisan support and is moving quickly toward becoming law, Stewart said.
Companion legislation in the Senate supported by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and others is also making headway. Earlier this week the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions approved key parts of the Senate version of the bill.
“The HELP Committee took an important step today by advancing our bipartisan legislation to raise the federal smoking and vaping age to 21,” Romney said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing work with my colleagues to keep harmful tobacco products out of our children’s hands and protect them from a lifetime of addiction.”
If all goes well, Stewart said the Tobacco to 21 Act could become law by fall if not sometime before then.
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