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Healdsburg is headed toward becoming the first city in California to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21 years old.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 3-1 to have the city attorney prepare an ordinance prohibiting the sale of tobacco to persons under 21, and also establish a tobacco retailers licensing program to enforce it

Mayor Jim Wood said it may not make a huge difference, but if it makes it a little harder for young people to smoke, it can keep them from getting lung cancer and "dying a miserable death."

This was the second meeting in as many months where a majority of the council has expressed strong backing for raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products, framing it as a public health issue in the interest of the community.

Councilman Tom Chambers noted "we are not prohibiting people from smoking," but "as a society, we get saddled with the expense and ramifications. I think it's something we can regulate."

The council initially was prompted in October by retired Healdsburg physician David Anderson to tighten tobacco restrictions. He said raising the age limit will discourage teens from starting to smoke and send a message to young people, parents, educators and visitors.

"This may be the biggest thing I've accomplished as far as saving lives," the retired internist said Tuesday after the council endorsed his proposal.

Healdsburg City Attorney David Warner said he could find no California county or city that has adopted an age higher than 18 for sale of tobacco.

Under federal law it is unlawful to sell cigarettes or smokeless tobacco to anyone under the age of 18, although four states -- Utah, Alaska, Alabama and New Jersey -- have established minimum ages of 19.

Attempts in the California Legislature to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco died in 2002 and 2005.

But Warner said Utah and nine or 10 other states are looking this year at raising the minimum age to 21.

"It looks like a tide is starting to crest across the nation," he said.

Last year, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law an ordinance prohibiting sale of tobacco to anyone under 21.

New York City's ordinance was described as the strictest of any major American city. It also set a minimum price of $10.50 per pack for tobacco cigarettes and increased law enforcement for illegal sales.

Opponents said young adult smokers would likely turn to black-market merchants. Critics also questioned the fairness of prohibiting young adults from buying tobacco at 18 but allowing them to vote or serve in the military.

Healdsburg Councilman Gary Plass was the lone dissenter Tuesday, saying he was concerned about liability -- i.e. the city being sued by cigarette manufacturers or retailers -- and the financial impact on mom-and-pop stores, as well as the cost of them having to get a license.

City Attorney Warner said San Francisco was sued over its restrictions of tobacco sales in pharmacies and grocery stores. Although the city prevailed, he said, it was only after several years of litigation.

Plass also questioned how the new restrictions would be monitored and enforced. He said teens could avoid the age restriction by going to nearby Windsor or Alexander Valley to buy tobacco or "have their big brother or big sister pick up smokes."

Plass said his father died from smoking, but he believes the issue should be addressed on the state level.

Councilwoman Susan Jones was absent Tuesday.

But Plass did join in a 4-0 vote to tentatively ban smoking e-cigarettes in public places and most places of employment. The council also voted unanimously to prepare an ordinance imposing a temporary moratorium on the establishment of e-cigarette lounges and "vapor" bars, a reference to the heating element in e-cigarettes that vaporizes a liquid solution, typically containing nicotine.

The city attorney noted that some proponents consider them a method of smoking cessation with a beneficial use, while others feel it's nothing more than a conduit to future smoking.

Warner acknowledged e-cigarettes are a relatively recent phenomenon, which makes it hard to gauge their health impacts.

But Wood said they should be restricted along with other tobacco products for the sake of consistency.

Currently, Healdsburg municipal code prohibits smoking in all enclosed public places, within 20 feet of building entrances and open windows, in public parks and in outdoor seating areas for restaurants and bars.

Enforcement of the city's smoking laws is left to the county's Department of Health Services.

Anderson, who brought the issue to the City Council, gathered a petition with more than 300 names on it urging the council to raise the age for purchase of tobacco products. He cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, stating one of every five deaths in the U.S. is related to smoking.

Most alarming, he said, is that 88 percent of smokers will begin in their teen years.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.