Starting Jan. 1, Tucson retailers will not be allowed to sell tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under the age of 21.

Tucson’s move to become Arizona’s largest municipality to raise the age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 prompted praise from a state lawmaker who has pushed for similar legislation statewide.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she’s again going to introduce legislation to curb teen vaping during the upcoming session, including to have those products defined in the same statute as tobacco, so they are subject to the same rules and regulations.

But Carter cautioned that she expects her proposal to be curbed again because “it will vehemently be opposed by the tobacco and vaping industry.”

“But I hope the public pressure continues to increase on the vaping industry so that we can finally put policies forward to keep vaping products out of the hands of kids,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to keep vaping products out of the hands of kids. Unfortunately, it’s at a crisis level now.”

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found last year that 19.9% of youths — and 26.1% of high school seniors — reported smoking e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. In 2016, less than 20% of 12th graders reported e-cigarette use in the month prior.

Tucson joined four other Arizona cities in adopting what’s more colloquially known as T21 when the Tucson City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night in favor of the ordinance. It goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, but includes a 90-day educational period before enforcement begins. It applies only to retailers within city limits.

“It took a year and a half, but we got it,” said Tucson Ward 3 Councilman Paul Durham, whose office predominantly worked on the ordinance. “As soon as it takes effect, we’ll see a significant reduction in the e-cigarettes in middle and high schools.”

Durham called it “unfortunate” that it’s only a citywide ordinance. The other four cities to adopt the T21 ordinance are Cottonwood, Douglas, Flagstaff and Goodyear.

“I hope that one day soon that other Southern Arizona districts will join us and will eventually lead to a state law,” he said.

The lone dissenting vote was Richard Fimbres, Ward 5, who was concerned the proposal would harm small businesses. The ordinance also increases the permit and renewal price to $300 and establishes new punishments for those who violate it.

There are currently 412 active tobacco retail licenses, which generate roughly $40,000 in licensing fees annually, according to city documents. There is no estimate of the number of vape shops, because operators currently only need to obtain a general retail license.

Officials estimate they’ll generate $120,000 annually from licensing, which will be used for enforcement of the ordinance. Enforcement will not be handled by police but by the Business Services Department, which is hoping to visit each retailer for inspection at least once a year, but at least within 18 months.

First-time penalties include a $500 fine and no suspension, while a fourth-time offense includes a $1,000 fine, revocation of the license and a one-year ban from reapplying for a license. The city included a 36-month look-back period for violations.

There was some discussion over whether to decrease that look-back period to 24 months, with some council members saying the wider span to become a multiple violator harms local businesses. But they ultimately voted on the original motion, which contains 36 months.

Durham said they’ll receive a report one year after the ordinance goes into effect and discuss any necessary tweaks. But he said the 36-month period is important, especially if they are only able to check each store once every 18 months.

“We’ll have a difficult time rooting out the stores that are the bad actors,” he said.

What fallout the ordinance will have on small businesses is still too early to tell, said Troy Little, president and owner of Quik Mart, which locally operates 23 stores, including 16 within city limits.

“We really don’t know what percentage of our overall tobacco sales are from that age group, so we really don’t know to what degree it will affect us,” he said. “It will likely impact that negatively to some bit. Fortunately or unfortunately, we think our stores that are right on the cusp of Tucson will probably gain.”

Little admitted he was “disappointed” by the ordinance – not because he’s against raising the age of purchase to 21, but because he doesn’t feel it is enough to effect the problem of teen vaping.

“I don’t think it’s going to do anything and have absolutely no impact keeping that product out of that age group people because they’ll literally walk across the street or down the road and get those products,” he said.

That will also reduce city tax collection “that we could use for police officers, or better roads, or so many of the needs that the city of Tucson has,” he said.

The passing of the Tucson ordinance came after the city attempted to work with Pima County to adopt a joint city-county ordinance. The city-only ordinance was drafted after the Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected a similar proposal last month.

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Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, said “I really don’t know” whether Pima County will reignite efforts to pass a T21 ordinance.

“At this point, they’ve weighed in on their opinion. That is a decision that they have made and we obviously abide by,” he said. “If we hadn’t thought there was something meritorious in this, we wouldn’t have proposed the language we proposed.”

Referring to Tucson, Garcia said he “will always celebrate” legislation that aims to curb vaping. He added that the Tucson law will “be challenging to enforce” but he’s confident the city will figure it out.

“I think that vaping in general is something that has had very little regulatory oversight and that’s why we see the challenges that we’re seeing at this point,” Garcia said. “It’s an important issue for all of us.”

That relief may ultimately come at the state level, and specifically Carter, the state legislator. She introduced T21 legislation during last session, as well as the other amendment to treat vaping and tobacco the same. They were declared separate in a 2013 state law.

“Our cities and towns have led the way, both in the state of Arizona and nationally, around smoking cessation policies,” she said.

“I am pleased to see them continuing to do so around the vaping crisis. And I’m strongly against any attempts to preempt the cities and towns from doing this work.”

She was referring to the work of some of her Republican colleagues, including Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge. He has sought an opinion from Attorney General Mark Brnovich that would essentially declare that local laws on smoking and vaping are illegal and unenforceable. He’s still waiting for that opinion.

Shope did not respond to Star phone calls seeking comment but told Capitol Media Services in October that he doesn’t “necessarily believe in” the legislation.

“I do believe that if you’re 18 and can go serve in the armed forces you should be able to go ahead and be a full-fledged adult,” he said.

Regardless, Carter said “there’s tremendous pressure on the state to do something.”

“Not only because cities and towns are filling the public policy gaps in state statues but because across the country it’s an ever-increasing problem,” she said. “We need to do something.”

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.comor 573-4192.

Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

Reporter

Justin, a UA graduate, covers local government, focusing on Marana, Oro Valley and the Arizona Board of Regents. He previously worked at the Louisville Courier Journal, Arizona Republic and Hartford Courant and has received multiple awards.