Lawrence City Commission to discuss 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.

City leaders will soon consider whether Lawrence should join more than a dozen other cities in Kansas that have banned the sale of tobacco products to people under 21.

During its work session Tuesday, the City Commission will begin discussion of a Tobacco 21 proposal. The measure would prohibit the sale of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and other devices that vaporize nicotine liquid, to people under 21, but would not ban the use of tobacco products for those ages 18-20.

The LiveWell Douglas County Tobacco 21 work group is backing the initiative, as is the Boys & Girls Club Resist team. Work group leaders recently told the Journal-World that older teens often provide tobacco products to younger ones, and the measure is meant to decrease access to tobacco products for teens when their brains are still developing and nicotine use is more likely to lead to lifelong addiction.

Both the Lawrence school district and the Douglas County Commission have voiced support for the Tobacco 21 initiative. In a letter to the commission, School Board President Jessica Beeson said both students and staff have provided the board compelling information about the problem of tobacco use in schools and more specifically e-cigarette use and vaping.

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“We believe this policy would have a positive and meaningful impact for our students and our community,” Beeson wrote. “We hope that the Lawrence City Commission will adopt this policy and protect the health of our youth and students.”

As part of their work session, commissioners will discuss the proposal, including a position paper from the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. The health department states, in part, that some cities that have adopted the Tobacco 21 measure have seen youth tobacco use decline.

One of the main concerns voiced by commissioners thus far has been the legality of such ordinances and the potential for legal challenges. About 20 Kansas cities have used home rule to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21, including Kansas City, Lenexa, Overland Park and Topeka.

However, in Topeka, businesses owners challenged the city’s ordinance in court. The district court ruled in March that state law pre-empted Topeka’s ordinance, and the city of Topeka has appealed that decision to the Kansas Supreme court, according to a memo to the commission from City Attorney Toni Wheeler. Wheeler states the appeal is still pending and that her office is monitoring the litigation as it could affect Lawrence’s ability to adopt a similar law.

In March, teenagers with the Boys & Girls Club Resist team spoke to the commission about the increasing popularity of vaping at Lawrence’s high schools. In April, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she thought there was some merit to getting more details about a potential Tobacco 21 measure, and fellow commissioners agreed to place the topic on a future work session agenda for discussion. Some commissioners have since said that they are interested in the discussion but that they are undecided and looking to hear more information on the topic.

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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