SALT LAKE CITY/DENVER, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Utah and Colorado are promoting legislation to raise the legal age for tobacco use to 21, a higher standard than imposed by any other U.S. state, saying they want to discourage young people from picking up a lifelong smoking habit.
Supporters say keeping tobacco out of the hands of young adults will save thousands of lives, even as critics complain that Americans who are old enough to vote and serve in the U.S. military should not be deemed too young to decide on their own if they should smoke.
In a dramatic display of the risks of smoking, lawmakers in Utah, a heavily Mormon and conservative state, hosted a wheelchair-bound and oxygen-tank-dependent 86-year-old longtime smoker at a committee hearing this week.
"I think a picture is worth a thousand words. I'm that picture," Betty Lawson, who suffers from smoking-related pulmonary disease, told a Utah Senate health committee on Thursday.
"Nineteen-years-old, I picked up my first cigarette. It's a creeping, insidious thing that has you before you know it and you can't turn lose," she said.
A Utah bill to raise the smoking age to 21 advanced from a committee hearing in the state Capitol on Thursday and now awaits consideration by the full Senate. If passed and signed into law, the legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2016, to allow smokers now ages 19 or 20 to turn 21.
A House committee on health, insurance and environment in outdoor-oriented Colorado also advanced its proposed legislation on Thursday with Democratic support. Republicans voted against it.
The Colorado legislation would grandfather-in current tobacco users between ages 18 and 21.
The legal age for the use, purchase or possession of tobacco in most states is 18, including in Colorado. A handful of states - Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - have set the smoking age slightly higher at 19.
Last year, New York City and Hawaii County in Hawaii each raised the smoking age to 21, although no state has set the legal smoking age that high.
Data from the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate 42 million people, or about 18 percent of all adults, are smokers.
Utah, where many residents are active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which discourages tobacco use, had the lowest smoking rate in the country in 2011 at about 12 percent. Colorado's smoking rate was about 18 percent that year, CDC data shows.
Utah health data has shown the years between 19 and 21 seem to have significant impact on smoking rates, Heather Borski, director of the state's bureau of health promotions. About 6 percent of Utah 12th graders say they use tobacco, but the number doubles to nearly 13 percent by age 21.
"Nineteen and 20 appear to be a critical transition period," she said.
Opponents of the legislation in both states do not dispute the health concerns that arise from smoking, but argue it is unfair to position the proposals as youth protection bills when those targeted by the legislation are legal adults.
"At what point do we as adults become qualified to make what may be bad decisions?," asked Dave Davis, a lobbyist for Utah's food industry and retail merchant associations.
Colorado state Representative Beth McCann, a Democrat, countered that smoking is a public health matter. "Joining the military and voting are privileges, but smoking is going to kill you or cause health problems and that adds to healthcare costs."
McCann's bill is now set for consideration by a finance committee. Legislative staff estimate that if her proposal became law, the state would lose $5.6 million annually in taxes from tobacco and tobacco-related product sales. Utah fiscal analysts predict a loss of about $2.7 million in taxes. (Reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City and Keith Coffman in Denver; editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and G Crosse)