One in 10 Utahns smoke cigarettes cigarettes but an estimated 17,000 children are exposed to harmful secondhand smoke.

"There is no safe level of secondhand smoke cigarettes exposure," said Dr. Kevin Nelson, a pediatrician at Primary Children's Medical Center.

As a member of child health advocacy boards and a representative of the hospital, Nelson told members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday, that research shows preventing exposure to the medically recognized class A carcinogen can prevent child health problems, such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses that can lead to death.

"And children have no choice or voice in this matter," he said.

Between 18 and 26 percent of all smokers in Utah come from low socioeconomic situations and have a generally lower education level, which affects certain neighborhoods throughout the state more than others. And while Primary Children's sees a disproportionate number of Medicaid recipients, many children arrive at the hospital in a fight for air in their lungs, Nelson said.

"When I treat one of these children and sit down with their parents, I have to have faith that a mother or father will quit, even though I know, statistically, that it can take them up to seven times to be successful at it," he said. It's a battle he's willing to continually fight to help any child breathe more freely.

While the state has the Indoor Clean Air Act, which prohibits smoking cigarettes indoors at public places, cities and towns have enacted other regulations to keep parks and other areas safe from secondhand smoke. However, stricter legislation in other states has done more to help children.

Nelson believes that policies to support and reward best practices or good behavior should be in place to help parents and other adults make better choices when it comes to their health. Companies such as R.C. Willey and Intermountain Healthcare have started to charge higher insurance premiums to employees who fail to protect themselves with good health habits.

"It's more than a health issue, it's a cruelty," said Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City. She said a child often doesn't have the liberty to walk out of a room where smoking cigarettes is taking place.

While lawmakers addressed the issue of meddling too much in the lives of common citizens, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, said "you can't fix stupid … though we try."

An estimated $660 million is spent in medical costs and lost productivity to treat cigarettes online use in Utah every year. Nelson said that in addition to the financial erosion of society due to the problems smoking cigarettes causes, quality of life suffers, as well as missed opportunities.

"It costs all Utahns," he said. "We're all paying for this."

Lawmakers encouraged Nelson and his colleagues, as well as the general public, to think of ways to better educate the public on the issue. State government has little recourse, but public education efforts have proven effective in the past.

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