Lawrence City Commission to consider raising age to buy tobacco, vaping 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.

City leaders will soon consider raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 and establishing a local tobacco sales license and enforcement process.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider adopting two ordinances that would 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.

LiveWell Douglas County, a health coalition coordinated by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, has been advocating for several years for the city to raise the age to buy tobacco products in Lawrence to 21. 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 commission has received multiple presentations from LiveWell over the past few years, with one of the key questions being how the city would enforce the higher purchasing age in the absence of state regulations. Concerns have included the potential time commitment and cost to the city to enforce a tobacco 21 ordinance and ensuring that enforcement efforts penalize retailers and not individual clerks. Commissioners directed city staff to work on a proposal in February 2022 that raised the age to buy tobacco and recommended an enforcement mechanism, among other tobacco-related changes, according to a city staff memo.

Since that time, the memo states that city staff has been working with representatives from Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and the American Heart Association to draft an ordinance. The proposed ordinance would require any tobacco retail business or self-service display, such as tobacco products vending machines, to obtain a license before selling any such products. 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 $250 per year and is set to cover the cost of administration and enforcement.

The ordinance sets limits on the eligibility for a tobacco retailer license, including that a retailer cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented” facility or another tobacco retailer. The total number of tobacco retailers is limited to one for every 2,500 inhabitants of a city.

Violations of the ordinance would be handled through the Municipal Court. As proposed, retailers found to have violated the ordinance are subject to a fine of $500 for the first violation, increasing to $750 and $1,000 for the second and third violation within a 36-month period. A second and third violation also results in a one-week and one-month ban on sales, respectively. A fourth violation is subject to a $1,000 fine and a three-year ban on sales. All fine proceeds will go to a tobacco prevention and education fund administered by the health department. Non-management employees shall be subject to non-criminal, non-monetary penalties, including but not limited to education classes and community service.

Under the proposal, any business found to be selling tobacco products without a license 180 days after the enactment of ordinance would be ordered to stop sales and would be ineligible to receive a tobacco retail license for three years. 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.

The proposed 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.

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


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