Lawrence City Commission to reconsider raising age to buy tobacco products to 21

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.

One of the first actions by the new Lawrence City Commission was to take up a proposal to ban the sale of tobacco and vaping products to people under 21.

The previous commission declined to consider a Tobacco 21 ordinance earlier this year, but two newcomers to the commission, Commissioner Courtney Shipley and Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei, were sworn in as part of the commission’s meeting Tuesday. Commissioner Lisa Larsen proposed reconsidering the ordinance, and the commission voted 4-1, with Mayor Jennifer Ananda opposing, to put the topic on a future agenda.

A court ruling this summer indicated that local governments have the authority to ban tobacco sales to those under 21, but because of the lack of support among the previous commission, the city has not joined Douglas County in passing such a ban. Larsen said she wanted the new commission to discuss the proposal and hear again from the proponents of the measure.

“I think it would be an opportunity to again hear from staff on the legal aspect of it as well as from those who are advocating for it, to hear more about new things that maybe they’ve come up with,” Larsen said.

Finkeldei, Shipley and Commissioner Stuart Boley also indicated they were interested in discussing a city ordinance restricting tobacco sales to those over 21. Boley, who was sworn in for another term Tuesday, also said he’d be interested in including such a restriction in the commission’s legislative priority statement, encouraging state legislators to create a state law.

Ananda, an attorney who also has a background in social work, has previously expressed to the commission and the Journal-World that she opposes using an ordinance to attempt to address the issue. Ananda has said that although the rise of vaping among teens was definitely a community health problem, she thought the focus should be on prevention rather than intervention, as the Journal-World reported. She has also expressed concern that an ordinance would actually have the negative effect of punishing those behind the counter, usually young people themselves, who don’t follow the age restrictions.

The LiveWell Douglas County Tobacco 21 work group is backing the initiative, as is the Boys & Girls Club Resist team. The ordinance would prohibit the sale of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and other devices that vaporize nicotine liquid, to people under 21, but it would not ban the use of tobacco products for those ages 18-20. In September, members of the Lawrence school board expressed disappointment over the city’s inaction on a ban, and the board said it planned to send a second letter to the commission calling for it to approve a Tobacco 21 ordinance to help combat what the district calls an epidemic of vaping.

Work group leaders have previously 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.

The commission will develop its legislative priority statement at its meeting Dec. 17, and, like Boley, Larsen and Finkeldei expressed interest in potentially including a statement about increasing the state tobacco age to 21. Regarding a city ordinance, City Attorney Toni Wheeler said the city could provide an update on the recent litigation on the topic and draft an ordinance for the commission’s review based on what other cities are doing. The commission did not schedule a date for that meeting, as Wheeler said the city would also need to reach out to proponents of the ordinance to find a date that works for them.

In other agenda discussion, Shipley proposed the commission reconsider its ordinance that requires property owners to pay to repair the sidewalks adjacent to their homes or businesses. In addition to the ordinance, the city has an administrative policy to provide financial assistance to low-income homeowners and those with more than one sidewalk adjacent to their home. Specifically, Shipley, who campaigned in part against the ordinance, proposed that the city pause the second phase of the sidewalk repair program that is now underway in order to find another “more equitable” solution. Shipley’s proposal to pause the program did not have enough support to move forward, as Boley, Ananda and Larsen said they were not interested in stopping the program at this time. However, commissioners said they were open to discussing the topic before the third phase gets underway, with Ananda specifically saying she wants to discuss the larger question of the city eventually taking on responsibility of all sidewalks.

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