Smoking

City and county leaders are set to vote Tuesday on a pair of initiatives that would raise the minimum legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Last August, the Tucson City Council directed the city manager to develop a legal framework relating to raising the minimum age within city limits. The idea was spearheaded by councilmen Paul Durham and Paul Cunningham after representatives from the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation and the Pima County Health Department sparked their interest in the issue months earlier.

The initiative, called Tobacco 21, is a national campaign to raise the minimum legal age for tobacco sales led by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. More than 95 percent of smokers started before the age of 21 and 350 teens become regular smokers each day in the United States, according to the foundation.

About the same time that city officials began to consider signing onto the campaign, the Pima County Board of Health requested that the Board of Supervisors consider revising the county’s smoking ordinance to include e-cigarettes. Supervisors took it a step further, recommending that the minimum legal sales age for tobacco and e-cigarettes be raised from 18 to 21. They also recommended creating a retail permit system that includes enforcement and regular inspections of tobacco retailers across Pima County, including its incorporated cities, according to a memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

In February and March, the Health Department held 12 community meetings to discuss the proposed changes. Nearly 90 people attended the meetings, which were held in each of the five county districts. Attendees included representatives of the vaping industry; retailers and convenience store operators; and health-related and nonprofit organizations, the memo said.

Two community suggestions were incorporated into the proposed ordinance, including an exemption for people who are between the ages of 18 and 21 years old when the ordinance is adopted. Those people will be grandfathered and may continue to purchase any tobacco-related products.

The second suggestion is an exemption for indoor vaping at vape shops, allowing customers the ability to sample products inside the shops at the owners’ discretion. This is the situation with regular tobacco products, and the change would provide parity among retailers and allow customers to sample vape products, the memo says.

Polling conducted by the American Heart Association in March found that 64% of people surveyed in Pima County were in favor of raising the tobacco purchasing age. For Tucson residents, that number climbed to 68%, the memo said.

The initiative wouldn’t be unique to Pima County. More than half of the nation’s population is covered by a Tobacco 21 policy. As of July 30, 18 states and at least 480 municipalities had raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In Arizona, Flagstaff, Cottonwood and Douglas have already signed on and raised the tobacco-buying age to 21.

Durham said last week he expects the ordinance changes to be passed by the City Council in Tuesday evening’s vote, possibly even unanimously.

“We spent a lot of time getting Pima County to participate, so I hope it’s a good result at the Board of Supervisors, as well,” Durham said, citing the polling numbers from Pima County and Tucson, and adding, “that’s a pretty strong mandate from the voters.”

If the county ordinance isn’t passed by supervisors at their Tuesday morning meeting, city leaders will know that going into their meeting and address the situation accordingly, Durham said.

“The sense of the council was pretty clear that we want to proceed with or without Pima County. We’ll need to make some changes to the ordinance to take on the enforcement for ourselves in Tucson, so it’s likely to stay on the agenda for the study session,” Durham said. “But we’ll need some time to make the related changes, so it’ll likely come back (for a vote) in the first meeting in September.”

Problems with the plan

Supervisor Sharon Bronson called the proposed ordinance “a worthy effort,” but said she had serious concerns, especially when it comes to enforcement and the penalties associated with violations for permit holders.

“A third violation suspends the individual establishment’s ability to sell for six months. That could put stores out of business,” Bronson said.

Writing of the ordinance lacked enough input from those affected, she said.

“How is this going to be enforced? If this is adopted, the city of Tucson and Pima County will enforce, but will that be the Sheriff’s Department or Health Department, or do you self-report?” Bronson said.

With six nearby jurisdictions as well as the reservations, teenagers who aren’t able to purchase tobacco in county or city limits will only have to travel a short distance to purchase tobacco, according to Bronson.

“In the end, we’re raising the age from 18 to 21, but at 18, you can vote and enlist in the military and die for your country, so there’s that little piece there,” Bronson said. “Obviously tobacco harms and vaping harms. We’ve got a public health issue. I think there might be a better way to craft this and address it, much like what we’ve done with alcohol, where it’s been a public information campaign.”

Supervisor Steve Christy echoed some of Bronson’s concerns about harsh penalties for store owners, telling the Star Friday he would be urging his colleagues to send the plan back to the county Health Department for further analysis.

“It’s not been thoroughly explored, established or even discussed what I would call the onerous penalties store owners could incur should this ordinance be enacted,” Christy said, adding that as a former business owner he knows how such an ordinance could affect a business. “I’m very concerned that the punitive part of the ordinance is of such a burdensome nature, it really warrants more thoughtful discernment.”

Roughly 30 percent of convenience stores’ sales are tobacco-related and the loss of revenue if a store’s license or permit is suspended would really create a “burdensome factor in their ability to maintain their operations,” according to Christy.

It’s tough to make employees fully aware of the ramifications a violation can have on the store, he said. Christy said he met with representatives from Circle K and Quik Mart who expressed concerns with the penalty portion of the initiative.

There’s also the question of who will be policing violations, with local store owners saying they have a hard time getting Tucson police to respond to shoplifting or theft reports.

“This probably needs to be further discussed among the industry and board of health and those who are trying to raise the legal age, and then it should be placed in the hands of the state to make it a uniform and concise ordinance, if that’s the route they want to take,” Christy said. “If my colleagues don’t see that it needs to be remanded, I’ll be put into a position where I will vote against the ordinance entirely.”

“This is an epidemic”

Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams worked closely with organizers of the initiative.

In March, Pima County teamed with high school students across Tucson to roll out a campaign to educate teens about the dangers of vaping. The campaign, the Real Deal on Vaping, relies on student-authored social media posts to educate about vaping dangers. Work on the initiative began in November and Williams said students, districts and the Health Department have been working hard on the campaign over the summer.

“The Health Department has gotten in there and they’re establishing what the program is and getting ready to roll out social media campaigns and following up with all the stakeholders involved in the process,” Williams said. “We’re making significant headway, which is good. Any time you can get into the schools and you can start those dialogues over the summer and those time lines for execution, that’s really a significant step, especially in the education world.”

Williams said the Pima County Health Department has been a big component in the effort to raise the tobacco-purchasing age in both the city and county.

“We’ve seen just a tremendous outcry for the need and concern,” Williams said. He was involved in efforts earlier this year to halt some bills at the Legislature that were put forth by the vaping industry. Many of the bills would have eliminated local control and changed ordinances, according to Williams.

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“There was a lot of activity going on at the state,” Williams said. “These vapors are meant to addict a brand new generation of humans. It took a long time to get to where we are. We had finally made tobacco pretty yucky and kids didn’t think it was cool to smoke. That has completely changed with vaping.”

For adults who are trying to quit smoking cigarettes, vaping is a viable alternative, but teenagers with developing brains should not be the target audience, Williams said.

“When you form an addiction in an adolescent year, you are more likely to have another addiction going forward in your life,” Williams said. “This is an epidemic in humanity. We’re going right back to the old days of when the Marlboro Man was cool.”

Despite the grandfather clause, Williams is happy with the ordinances proposed by the county and city, saying he’s proud of the teamwork displayed by the two jurisdictions.

“I’m really, really pleased to see Pima County and the city step up and begin the process,” Williams said. “I’m pleased that we have a starting point. Partisanship aside, let’s think about the youth and the generations to come. We’re really at that point where if something drastic doesn’t happen, Big Tobacco is going to win.”

Statewide solution preferred

Another supporter of the proposed ordinances is the Arizona Smoke Free Business Alliance, a legislative advocacy group comprised of vaping businesses. The group worked closely with the city early in the process.

“There were a lot of provisions that we had asked for in the (ordinance) that have become a reality,” said Steve Johnson, executive director of the alliance, elaborating on the importance of the grandfather clause. “We agreed that raising the age to 21 will help with the youth access problem ... but we also know that there are a lot of 18, 19 and 20 years old out there that are nicotine users. We feel that societally it’s a bad idea to tell them, ‘Hey you can do this legally today, but not tomorrow,’ with an addictive product.”

Restricting young nicotine users from the product will only serve to create a black market for the product, Johnson said.

“The licensing is obviously something we support. We’re fully aware that there are bad actors in our industry and we want to see those bad actors not be in our industry anymore,” Johnson said. “Having a license that a city or county can pull for badly behaving businesses we feel benefits the industry as a whole and benefits those of us who work hard to go about it the right way.”

Arizona doesn’t license tobacco or vapor retailers, Johnson said. Under the proposed ordinances for Pima County and the city, the county will issue tobacco permits for both jurisdictions as well as unincorporated portions of the county, ensuring that the entity that issues permits is also responsible for enforcement.

“At the end of the day, the vapor industry is in the harm-reduction business,” Johnson said. “Part of that is us existing and staying on the market and we do that through following the rules that are put in place.”

The Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, the state’s nonprofit trade association for the food industry, sent representatives to Tucson to lobby against the ordinance on the basis that the organization wants a state solution rather than local ordinances, said President Mark Miller.

The alliance represents supermarkets, convenience stores, independent grocers and their suppliers with the goal of protecting and promoting the food retail industry in Arizona.

“To train our people and have them move around with different age limits as they move store to store is really difficult for us to manage,” Miller said. “Our other issue is that even though you’ll cover all of Pima County and the city of Tucson, there’s all the other cities that are close by that won’t be included that the shopper can just move to, whether it be South Tucson, Marana or Oracle.”

The alliance was very active during the last legislative session, supporting a statewide increase of the tobacco purchasing age. Miller says the group plans to do the same next session.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191.