Healdsburg may become the first city in California to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21 years old.
Most City Council members agreed this week they want to raise the age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarettes in town, despite the likelihood of being sued.
"We're on the map for a lot of things: our wine, our tourism, our restaurants. Is this such a bad thing to be on the map for?" said Councilman Shaun McCaffrey.
"Part of our job is to look out for the health of our citizens," he said while also acknowledging the city likely would be the target of litigation, presumably from tobacco companies or retailers.
While there was a consensus to move forward with an ordinance raising the age to 21 for buying tobacco, council members also agreed they want the city attorney to further investigate the matter before they vote on it, probably in late January.
The council took up the topic after being approached by retired Healdsburg physician David Anderson two months ago. He said raising the age limit for buying tobacco will discourage teens from starting to smoke and "make a statement to teenagers, parents, visitors and educators."
City Attorney David Warner said he was unable to find any other city in California that has raised the age for buying tobacco above the state-mandated minimum of 18. Bills have been introduced in the state legislature, but those efforts have been unsuccessful.
A few states and counties have raised it to 19. New York City in October adopted what were described as the strictest limits on tobacco purchases of any major American city. It raised to 21 the minimum age for buying tobacco and electronic cigarettes. It also set a minimum price of $10.50 per pack for tobacco cigarettes and stepped up law enforcement for illegal sales.
Opponents of the New York City law suggested young adult smokers will 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 City Councilman Gary Plass, the lone voice on the council against raising the age for buying tobacco, said 18-year-olds can "go off to war, and enter into contracts to buy property and autos."
"My hope is we can educate them up to 18 and maybe they won't smoke," he said.
Plass noted that his father died as the result of smoking. But he said even if the minimum age is raised, those under 21 could still smoke, go just outside of town to buy tobacco, or to nearby communities like Windsor.
He said raising the age "would open up the city to some pretty strong liability."
His comments followed those of City Attorney Warner who told the council it was perhaps premature to be a trailblazer.
"There is some risk involved, potential litigation if we get too far ahead (of other cities)," he said.
Warner also said Healdsburg is likely preempted by state law from adopting an ordinance raising the minimum age to 21. Both state and federal law specify 18 as the minimum age to buy cigarettes or smokeless tobacco.
But a majority of the council leaned toward increasing the age minimum. As a dentist and health care provider, Councilman Jim Wood said he has seen the ravages that smoking causes and it can occur early.