DENVER — Two Western states with some of the nation’s lowest smoking rates are considering 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 in favor of the idea there.
In Colorado, the testimony was similar: that pushing up the tobacco age could make it harder for teens to access tobacco and possibly reduce usage rates among adults.
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“What I’m hoping to do is make it harder for kids to obtain cigarettes,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, a Republican who sponsored the measure.
Both proposals face several more votes. But they’re the furthest any states have gone to curb access to cigarettes by teens. The director of tobacco studies at University College London didn’t know of any 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, which owns the country’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris, said Friday that it supports 18 as the minimum age to purchase tobacco, which Congress approved in 2009.
The company, whose tobacco brands include Marlboro, Parliament and Virginia Slims, said states should wait until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finishes a study about raising the purchase age higher than 18.
A study published last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine said that 9 out of 10 daily smokers in the U.S. have their first cigarette by 18, and that about 90 percent of cigarettes purchased for minors are obtained by people between 18 and 20.
The Washington-based Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids advocates the higher smoking age and says it could make a serious dent in tobacco deaths down the road.
Four states, including Utah, already require tobacco purchasers to be 19. The others are Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey.
Fisher said the 21-for-tobacco bills are pending in state 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 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorado isn’t far behind, at about 18 percent in 2011, according to the CDC.