Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) and supporters applaud in Salt Lake City during a ceremonial signing of a state resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis in 2016. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Utah leaders have long sought to play a central role in the anti-pornography movement, but the state’s most well-known attempt to strike down smut did not go so well.

The state’s much-lampooned “porn czar” only lasted a few years in the early 2000s before the position was scratched in budget cuts. Earlier this month, Utah legislators eliminated the statute permitting the state attorney general to employ such a prosecutor.

“It’s not the job of the government to sit in a dark room and review porn,” said Utah Rep. Michael McKell (R-Spanish Fork), the House sponsor of the bill that eliminated the czar — who, he stressed, was not intended to be an obscenity nanny in the first place.

But Utah’s anti-erotica ambitions have not waned. The tactics have just changed. In this heavily religious state, the fight against porn is increasingly being framed not as a moral crusade but as a public health crisis. Although there is significant debate on whether that is actually true, Utahns have been a very receptive audience to the message.

They have also proved to be adept at spreading it. And now others who are wary of the ways in which porn has proliferated in the information age are adopting Utah’s public health framing.

About 60 percent of Utahns and nearly 90 percent of the state’s lawmakers are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has declared “depiction, in pictures or writing, that is intended to inappropriately arouse sexual feelings” to be “a tool of the adversary,” the descriptor Mormons often use for Satan.

When the legislature created the “obscenity and pornography complaints ombudsman” job in 2000, Utah had one of the nation’s highest rates of computer ownership and access to the Internet. Families were learning how hard it can be to keep pornography out of their homes in the digital age.

Paula Houston, the first and only porn czar, was quickly inundated by requests to get supermarkets to stop carrying racy magazines, prevent lingerie catalogues from being delivered and remove R-rated videos from public libraries. She said she ended up spending a lot of her time “just talking to people about the First Amendment, the Constitution and their rights, and that those rights apply to everyone.”

Houston said she encouraged Utahns to take the matter into their own hands. And they did. By the time Houston’s job was eliminated in 2003, the Utah Coalition Against Pornography had become the go-to group for people concerned about porn.

Today, the coalition runs the largest anti-porn conference in the United States. Nearly 3,000 people attended the annual gathering last year. Coalition chairwoman Pamela Atkinson said the conference is still predominantly attended by Utahns, but that attendees are increasingly out-of-staters “looking for leadership” on the issue. The next conference will be held March 10 in Salt Lake City.

“The early conferences had a few hundred people,” Atkinson said. “But people came, and they got straight-up information from us and some strategies and tools they could take with them, and word got out.”

Increasingly, over the years, that word has been “addiction.” Pornography addiction prevention and recovery are some of the most common topics for speakers at the conference.

Those themes have had a significant impact on the legislative agenda of state Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross). While he co-sponsored the bill to erase the porn czar position, saying he was simply eliminating “a dead statue,” Weiler has sponsored at least 10 bills or resolutions related to pornography in his six years in the Utah Legislature. Some colleagues have even joked they would like to make him the state’s next porn czar.

“What’s near and dear to my heart is protecting children from something that is already illegal to view,” Weiler said of his legislative record. “Porn today is not the porn we grew up with in the 1980s and ’90s.”

A Weiler bill that would require Internet service providers to offer content filtering methods and to make customers aware of such services to prevent “materials harmful to minors” passed a key committee last week.

Last year, Weiler sponsored a bill that allows children and their parents to sue pornography distributors for psychological harms caused by viewing sexual content intended for adults. Weiler said lawmakers in other states have expressed interest in sponsoring similar legislation, even though, as of yet, he has not heard of any lawsuits being filed under the law in Utah.

One initiative that does seem to have taken hold, though, is Weiler’s 2016 effort to declare pornography “a public health crisis.” That nonbinding resolution, unanimously passed by both chambers of the state legislature, warned “this biological addiction leads to increasing themes of risky sexual behaviors, extreme degradation, violence, and child sexual abuse images and child pornography.”

The Kansas House of Representatives passed a resolution last year that used much of the same language as the Utah resolution; on Feb. 6, the Kansas state Senate followed suit. The Standing Committee on Health in Canada’s House of Commons used strikingly similar verbiage in a report decrying “the public health effects of the ease of access and viewing of online violent and degrading sexually explicit material” in 2017.

It is not just legislative bodies that have taken up the public health argument. A Utah-based youth-focused organization called Fight the New Drug also has latched onto that framing as well.

Representatives from the nine-year-old nonprofit give presentations at schools and churches around the world. The organization has 1.5 million followers on Facebook and 30,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel. In 2016, the nonprofit’s website had 17.5 million page views. In that same year, according to Internal Revenue Service records, about 60,000 people — from every U.S. state and 155 nations — were enrolled in the organization’s pornography “recovery” program, called Fortify. The app-based program costs up to $14.95 per month for adults and $7.95 a month for students. Some scholarships are available for teens between the ages of 13 and 17.

This month, the organization launched a national awareness campaign, called “Fifty Shades of Love,” to address the ways in which it contends the “Fifty Shades of Grey” book and movie franchise — which include scenes of bondage, domination and sadomasochism — “normalizes abuse.”

“I think where Fight the New Drug succeeded is starting a conversation that broke down some of the barriers that were plaguing this topic for so long,” co-founder Clay Olsen said, noting the organization takes a nonlegislative approach that concedes the fundamental right of adults to view pornographic materials.

He downplayed the impact of launching his organization in a religiously conservative state. “Was Utah a good beginning or starting grounds for us? I don’t know. It worked for us,” he said. “But I’m not sure we wouldn’t have had the same results in any location.”

There are certainly people “in very conservative, highly religious populations” who are natural allies for the organization, Olsen said, but “many people don’t even want to have the conversation in those communities.”

Although founded by Mormons, Olsen’s organization has sought to distance itself from the church. He noted the organization gets no direct funding from the LDS church and that it does not consult with the church about its campaigns.

The new fight, Olsen said, is about science, not shame.

David Ley does not buy it. The Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist and author of “The Myth of Sexual Addiction” said those who have adopted the public health framing are “cherry-picking the research.”

He pointed out that the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnosis guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, does not include pornography addiction. And yet Utah, he noted, has numerous porn addiction treatment programs.

In an article in the latest edition of the peer-reviewed journal “Porn Studies,” Ley argues that people who seek treatment for porn addiction actually view less erotica than average, but guilt associated with religiously based sexual values creates an internal conflict with the pleasure they get from watching it, so “they just feel worse about it.”

“That’s the real problem with the whole porn addiction model,” Ley said. “It diagnoses the symptoms and not the issue. If I walk into the doctor’s office and I’m sneezing, my doctor doesn’t say, ‘You have sneezing addiction, and you need to stop sneezing.’ ”

Rebecca Sullivan, who lectures on feminist media and cultural studies at the University of Calgary, said she is disconcerted that Canadian lawmakers adopted a porn-is-unhealthy mantra born in a conservative U.S. state.

“This isn’t a public health issue,” she said. “Are there concerns about porn? Absolutely. But they’ve framed it as a virus. Porn is not a virus. Porn is not a condition. Porn may be a symptom of greater social concerns such as lousy sex education, lack of consent-based education and rigid gender norms.”

Olsen, though, argued that much of the science is just getting started, comparing the situation to the status of tobacco research in the late 1940s. “Then we had a 50-year debate in our society trying to figure out what the health risks were,” he said.

Leaders from Utah’s predominant religion are not waiting for scientific consensus to embrace the message that porn is bad for public health.

“We do need to see this like avian flu, or cholera, or diphtheria, or polio,” Elder Jeffrey Holland, a member of the second-highest governing body in the LDS church, told Utah Coalition Against Pornography conference attendees in 2016. “It needs to be eradicated.”