Some city leaders still interested in raising age to buy tobacco products; others say it’s the wrong approach

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.

Though the Lawrence City Commission has declined to consider a proposal to ban the sale of tobacco and vaping products to people under 21, that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea won’t get its day at City Hall.

A court ruling this summer indicated that local governments have the authority to ban tobacco sales to those under 21, but because of a lack of support among Lawrence city commissioners, the commission has not joined Douglas County in passing such a ban. However, with an election coming up, Mayor Lisa Larsen said she planned to bring the topic up again.

“I’m just a believer in that we ought to have these discussions and not put them to the side,” Larsen said. “They are too important.”

Earlier this month, members of the Lawrence school board expressed disappointment over the city’s inaction on a ban, and the board plans 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. 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 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 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.

But some commissioners don’t think a ban is the right approach.

Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said she thought such an ordinance would not be effective. Rather, she thinks it would actually have the negative effect of punishing those behind the counter, usually young people themselves, who don’t follow the age restrictions. Ananda said she thought a ban was a Band-Aid solution.

“Rather than implementing a largely ineffective or impossible to fully enforce rule that’s going to affect individuals, I would rather take on the real problem,” Ananda said.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert also said he didn’t think increasing the age to buy tobacco was the right way to address the problem. Herbert said he thought legal adults should be able to make legal adult choices and that the approach should be for schools and parents to educate children that vaping is dangerous. He said he didn’t think Tobacco 21 would actually decrease accessibility for teens and that, similar to marijuana and alcohol, underage people would continue to have access to those products.

“Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that if we raise the tobacco age to 21, suddenly it’s going to be difficult for high school kids to get vaping cartridges,” Herbert said. “Look at marijuana, right? No one in Kansas of any age can purchase marijuana, and if it takes you more than 15 minutes to buy weed at a Lawrence high school, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Ananda said the rising prevalence of vaping among teens was definitely a community health problem and she hoped the school board and the city could work together to address it. However, she said efforts should focus on prevention rather than intervention.

“The real paradigm shifting comes from doing the work that prevents that from becoming an issue in the first place, and frankly it’s the harder work,” Ananda said.

In June, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the city’s home rule authority to prohibit the sale of tobacco products to people under the age of 21. In July, Larsen asked her fellow city commissioners about adding the discussion to a future agenda, and both Ananda and Herbert said they were not interested and a discussion was not scheduled.

Larsen said she planned to bring the topic up again following the upcoming election, after which newcomers will replace at least two of her fellow commissioners.

“I’m very interested in it, and I’ve done some research on it and the statistics show that it does a great job of decreasing the percentage of teenagers that become addicted to smoking,” Larsen said. “And I think that warrants a lot more discussion.”

The school board previously sent letters to the Lawrence and Douglas County commissions encouraging the local governing bodies to approve Tobacco 21 ordinances. The Douglas County Commission approved its ordinance, which only applies to the unincorporated areas of the county, in September 2018.

The seats of Commissioners Stuart Boley, Leslie Soden and Herbert are up for election this year, and both Soden and Herbert have announced they will not seek reelection. The general election will be Tuesday, Nov. 5.


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