At this afternoon’s study session, we will be discussing changing the age at which tobacco products can be purchased from 18 to 21. There has been a lot of coverage in the local media about this; KVOA, KOLD and the Arizona Daily Star have all run stories.
This is an issue I have been involved with for years, both in my time working in schools as a safe school probation officer and working with Amistades, an organization working on prevention of youth addiction. I was happy to sign on to the memo that got us talking about this today.
95% of smokers start before the age of 21, and a law like this will make it easier for high schools to keep tobacco out. Similar laws have been passed across the country, including two cities in Arizona (Douglas and Cottonwood). It is being considered in Tempe as well. It will be the law in Illinois should the governor sign the bill. If that happens, close to one third of people in the US will be living in areas covered by these laws.
The aim here is not to punish kids for buying cigarettes or even smoking, but to discourage retailers from selling cigarettes to people under 21. Because we already have systems in place to stop alcohol sales to people under 21 (our drivers’ licenses are designed for that), it will likely not be a burden on most retailers. It is actually a small percentage of sales over all (2% according to a Harvard study), but would have a big impact on future addictions.
Still, we have a lot to decide. For example, what mechanism will there be for enforcement? There is actually a city issued license for selling tobacco, but it is not something that has been enforced. If we put more of an emphasis on getting retailers to buy that license (they cost $100), we can put that towards enforcement. Either we can hire an officer to enforce the law, or compensate the county health department to do so. In Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri, they have a special compliance officer who visits retailers twice a year.
Many times when we discuss laws regarding restrictions or taxes on sales, the argument is made that people will just go to another city or into the county to buy the product. The experience in other jurisdictions shows that this isn’t the case with youth tobacco sales. Needham, a suburb of Boston, was one of the early cities to pass a law like this. It is a small jurisdiction where you can literally walk a few blocks and be in the next town. The region experienced a nearly 18% drop in tobacco use by high school students, but Needham’s rate went down by 48%.
This afternoon is only the start of the discussion. The details, particularly enforcement, will have to be worked out. We have already engaged the Chamber of Commerce, which does not oppose this, but wants to make sure that this is fair to retailers. I’m glad to have them at the table as we develop this policy over the next few months.
What I like about our discussion here is that it is driven by youth, much like the smoke free parks discussion that has been going on in some area cities. The presentation today will be from local high school students.
As a teacher, I see the challenges with fighting youth tobacco addiction every day. The growth of “vaping” has made tobacco use seem like something safe and the sticks that are used can look like a pen. There are new products like the JUUL that don’t look like you are smoking at all. Many of these products are subtly aimed at sales to young people to get them addicted. I’m for anything we can do as policy makers to make this as hard as possible.