Utah lawmakers consider nicotine regulations 

Utah lawmakers are considering multiple bills aimed at cracking down on nicotine products, citing frustration with rising Medicaid costs and concern that products such as e-cigarettes will to an increase in smoking rates.

The measures under discussion would increase the out-of-pocket costs for smokers who receive public health benefits and place more strict regulations on the sale and use of nicotine products.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who is at the forefront of the anti-nicotine push, said Monday he is planning to run at least three bills tied to the issue.

Chief among those is legislation that would increase the current $3 Medicaid copay for tobacco users $5, although Ray said he wants to include incentives for people to enroll in smoking cessation programs.

The proposal would require the approval of the federal government, and Ray acknowledges a waiver could be tough to get. Last year, federal officials rejected a proposed $50 annual fee for Medicaid recipients in Arizona who are obese or smoke.

Details of the Utah increase plan are still being worked out, but Ray said his primary goal is to encourage people to stop smoking, which he says will lower Medicaid costs.

"If enough states start requesting these waivers, the federal government might realize it makes sense," Ray said.

Ray also is pushing for a requirement that nicotine lozenges be stored in the same locked cases used by retailers for cigarettes. Otherwise, he is worried children will be lured to purchase or use them.

He also wants to bar anyone 18 years and under from smoke shops that specialize in tobacco products and increase the penalties for selling to underage customers or offering banned products.

Also, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, is working on amendments to House Bill 245 that will regulate indoor use of hookahs and electronic cigarettes after a House committee balked at an outright ban Monday.

"Someone could come into the Capitol and decide they want to have a hookah party in the rotunda, and there's no way to prevent that," Last said.

The lack of regulatory authority was underscored this year when county and state health officials tried to ban hookah smoking indoors but were rebuffed by the Legislature.

The so-called e-cigarettes allow the user to heat nicotine, herbs or other substances and ingest the active ingredients without actually burning the substance.

With hookahs, tobacco is heated in a pipe, drawn through a bowl of water, and inhaled through a hose.

Committee members who rejected the ban Monday were concerned it would effectively shutter multiple businesses that cater to hookah smokers without solid evidence of a significant health problem.

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Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin

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