Lawrence City Commission approves raising age to buy tobacco, vaping products to 21
photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot
Lawrence city leaders have voted to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 and to establish a local tobacco sales license and enforcement process.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 5-0 to adopt two ordinances that raise the age to buy tobacco, establish the local license procedures, and various new provisions regarding tobacco use. The changes would cover traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes as well as synthetic products such as e-cigarettes or vapes.
Commissioners expressed broad support for the changes. Discussions about a local ordinance began four years ago, and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she has always been supportive of the effort and was happy to see it finally move forward.
“From there it’s been a long four years, but I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point,” Larsen said.
LiveWell Douglas County, a health coalition coordinated by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, has been advocating since 2018 for the city to raise the age to buy tobacco products in Lawrence to 21. Other organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the Lawrence branch of the NAACP, have also supported the effort. The federal age to buy tobacco was raised to 21 in late 2019, but Kansas’ state law has yet to be changed to reflect that. Douglas County has passed regulations to increase the age, but they only affect the rural unincorporated areas of the county and not the City of Lawrence.
The ordinance will require any tobacco retail business or self-service display, such as tobacco products vending machines, to obtain a license before selling any such products. To enforce the ordinance, a tobacco retailer will be subject to at least two unannounced compliance checks per year, which would be conducted by the health department. Violations of the ordinance will be assessed to the tobacco retailer and handled through the Municipal Court. All proceeds from fines will go to a tobacco prevention and education fund administered by the health department.
One of the key questions in past discussions at the commission level has been how the city would enforce the higher purchasing age in the absence of state regulations and what the costs might be for the city. The City Clerk’s office generally handles other types of licensing, but the tobacco license would instead be handled entirely by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. The license fee would be $260 per year for retailers and $15 per year for tobacco product vending machines, with the fees set to cover the cost of administration and enforcement.
The ordinance drafted by city staff and approved by the commission did not include location limitations proposed by the health department and the American Heart Association. That proposal limited how close tobacco retailers could be to youth-oriented facilities, the proximity of retailers to one another, and the overall numbers of retailers.
The ordinances also cover other tobacco-related changes. Those include updating the definition of smoking to include vaping and other electronic cigarettes and smoking devices. The definition of smoking was also updated to include hookah and e-hookah. Those changes would clarify that vaping is subject to indoor or other smoking bans.
Out of concern for the ordinance penalizing tobacco users, there was some discussion about whether a provision that makes it unlawful for a person to smoke in any area where smoking is prohibited should remain in the ordinance. In response to questions from the commission, Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said that provision of the enforcement section allowed the city to enforce smoking bans in public places. Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said the provision is rarely cited in Municipal Court, with the provision only being cited three times in the past five years.
Ultimately, the commission decided to leave the provision in the ordinance. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said that if the city were to see an uptick in tickets for tobacco users, he thought that would be something the city would need to address.
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge told the commission that the health department would be ready to begin the program on Jan. 1.