The top Republican leader in the Iowa House says raising the cigarette tax probably won’t curb teen smoking rates as much as advocates claim. House Speaker Christopher Rants, a Republican from Sioux City, says anti-smoking crusaders might instead focus the penalties against kids who’re caught smoking.

“If we’re truly concerned about underage smokers, then perhaps it’s time that all of us — whether it be state legislators, people involved in law enforcement, parents, educators — decided to get serious about enforcing the laws we currently have on the books today,” Rants says.

It is illegal for someone under the age of 18 to buy tobacco products and illegal for an adult to sell or give tobacco to minors. While it is illegal for a kid to possess tobacco, too, a kid caught with a cigarette doesn’t get fined like a kid caught with a can of beer does. Rather than raise the cigarette tax to make the price of smokes higher — in hopes of keeping some kids from smoking — Rants suggests it might be wiser to make the penalties for possession of tobacco the same as for alcohol and raise the legal smoking age to 21.

“If we truly believe that (cigarettes) are a significant problem and we are concerned about those kids even getting started, perhaps we ought to treat it like alcohol and raise the legal age to 21,” Rants says. “But if we do that, then I hope that we would be just as serious as a society about confronting those people who are (smoking) who shouldn’t be (smoking).”

Rants made his comments after Governor Tom Vilsack renewed his call for raising the state tax on cigarettes, and the governor cited the weekend suicide of his former chief-of-staff to recraft his argument. Doctor Steve Gleason battled an addiction to prescription drugs and Vilsack contends cigarettes are often a gateway drug to other addictions.

Rants says his first reaction to that is one of sympathy for the Gleason family. “Dr. Gleason was a good man and it’s unfortunate what his addiction led him to,” Rants says. “That being said, addiction is something that damages a lot of lives…not just those that are addicted to pain killers or are addicted to alcohol and remember, those addictions are completely unrelated to tobacco.” Rants says raising the tobacco tax isn’t the solution to those kinds of situations.