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."