Questions remain as Lawrence considers raising age to buy tobacco products

photo by: Richard Gwin

Signs warning against the sale of tobacco to minors are displayed in the window of a Lawrence store, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.

Lawrence city commissioners will soon consider a measure that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products in the city from 18 to 21.

Both the Lawrence school district and the Douglas County Commission have voiced support for the Tobacco 21 initiative, which would ban the sale of all tobacco-related products, including electronic cigarettes and vaping devices used to inhale nicotine, for those under 21. However, the city government would be the body in charge of creating, enforcing and legally defending such an ordinance, and city leaders have questions.

Though Mayor Stuart Boley is undecided on the topic, he said the measure is an issue he is looking forward to learning more about and one the commission needs to consider. Boley said one of the questions is whether city government could legally defend such an ordinance if it were passed.

“Is it a function of city government that the courts will support?” Boley said. “That’s one of those things I always worry about, is how much is it going to cost us to defend this if we have to.”

About 20 other cities in Kansas, including Topeka, have passed Tobacco 21 ordinances. Topeka’s ordinance has been challenged in court, and the Kansas Supreme Court is expected to consider that case. City Attorney Toni Wheeler previously told the commission that city staff would continue to review that case.

The LiveWell Douglas County Tobacco 21 work group is backing the initiative, as is the Boys & Girls Club Resist team. The measure would not ban use or possession of tobacco products for those between 18 and 21, and is instead focusing on reducing the availability.

Vicki Collie-Akers, chair of the LiveWell Douglas County Tobacco 21 work group, said that particularly with the popularity of e-cigarettes and vaping, tobacco use is not something to be complacent about. Collie-Akers said older teens often provide tobacco products to younger peers, and the measure is meant to decrease access to tobacco products and delay when people start using them.

When asked why those three years would make a difference, Collie-Akers said reducing nicotine use for those under 21 is important because a lot of substantive brain development occurs in those years. She said delaying when people start using tobacco products has long-term benefits for reducing the likelihood of lifelong addiction.

“That brain development from the teenage years through 21 limits the possibility of long-term addiction as well as grows more impulse control that also interacts with whether or not you become a lifelong user of tobacco,” Collie-Akers said.

E-cigarettes heat and vaporize a fluid typically containing nicotine that users inhale, and they often come in fruit or candy flavors. The number of teens using e-cigarettes has been rising nationwide. From 2011 to 2017, e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to about 12 percent among high school students and from 0.6 percent to 3.3 percent among middle school students, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Lawrence resident Anna Osterhaus, 18, said she thought it makes sense to increase the age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarette and vaping liquid. Osterhaus, who graduated from Lawrence High School last year, said that older students supplying younger students with vaping products was an issue.

“If you can use it, but can’t go out and buy it, I think that make a lot of sense,” Osterhaus said. “It’s actually an issue and I think it could help. Not solve the issue, but address the issue.”

Lawrence resident Quinn Hill, 19, agreed. Hill, who is from Salina, said that vaping was also trendy at her high school. Hill said she thinks raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21 is a good idea, especially given how addictive nicotine is.

“So it’s a little bit more out of reach for younger kids, because it’s not a good thing to be addicted to,” Hill said.

However not all those under 21 agree that city government should be stepping in. Lawrence resident Charlie Carr, 20, said that though he doesn’t smoke himself, he thinks people who are legally adults should be able to make that decision for themselves.

Carr said if you are old enough to sign up for military service, you should be able to buy tobacco products. Carr also said he saw the use of tobacco products as different from alcohol, because alcohol use can immediately endanger the user and others.

“I don’t think you can apply the same logic to both,” Carr said. “It’s two different scenarios, and if you’re an adult you should have the right to buy it.”

Lawrence City Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, had similar thoughts. Ananda said that she is also open to discussing the proposal, but that she thinks the commission needs to consider that element of personal choice.

“I think that, for me, it’s balancing when do we call someone an adult,” Ananda said. “And I understand access for younger folks, but it’s balancing that and personal choice.”

When asked why those who are legally adults shouldn’t be able to make that decision for themselves, Collie-Akers said it has to do with the risk of addiction.

“At the same time, we also limit people from using alcohol before the age of 21, gambling before the age of 21,” Collie-Akers said. “So things that have addiction components we already limited to after the age of 21, and we feel like this is in line with those things.”

The City Commission is scheduled to consider the Tobacco 21 proposal at its meeting Oct. 9. Though she has questions, like Boley, Ananda said she was looking forward to the discussion.

“I don’t sit anywhere on that yet,” Ananda said. “I’m willing to listen and I want to have a conversation around it, so I’m walking into this completely open.”


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