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Colorado, Utah take steps to raise tobacco age to 21

A student lit up near a high school in Monument, Colo. The new laws are meant to keep people from starting smoking.

Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

A student lit up near a high school in Monument, Colo. The new laws are meant to keep people from starting smoking.

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 both voted favorably on proposals Thursday to treat tobacco like alcohol and take it away from 18- to 20-year-olds.

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The move was 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 the tobacco age could make it harder for teens to access tobacco, and possibly reduce usage rates among adults.

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

Both proposals face several more votes. But they are the furthest any states have gone to curb access to cigarettes by teens.

The director of tobacco studies at University College London said he did not 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 Inc., which owns the country’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said in a statement 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 finishes a pending study on raising the purchase age higher than 18.

A paper published last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine said that 9 out of 10 daily smokers in the United States have their first cigarette by 18 years of age.

It also said that about 90 percent of cigarettes purchased for minors are obtained by people between 18 and 20 years old.

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