Healdsburg on Monday became the first city in the state to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, in a move hailed as a step to cutting down on youth smoking, but also criticized as putting local retailers at a disadvantage and exposing the city to potential liability.
On a 4-1 vote, the council approved what was described as the first city ordinance in the state to raise the age from 18 to 21 for a person to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products.
“This is about trying to save people’s lives — prevent disease,” Mayor Jim Wood said. “I see more young people than ever before smoking. It’s distressing.”
“Anything we can do to turn the tide on smoking, we have an obligation to do,” Councilman Tom Chambers said.
The ordinance, which came at the urging of doctors and the American Lung Association, is tentatively scheduled to take effect in early December, and will also require the city’s approximate 20 tobacco retailers to obtain a special city license of about $450 annually to pay for enforcement and monitoring by the Police Department.
Electronic cigarettes also are considered a tobacco product and are not to be sold to anyone under 21, as stipulated by the city ordinance.
Also prohibited will be the selling of tobacco in pharmacies, including supermarkets such as Safeway, which includes a pharmacy.
The council majority was warned by Councilman Gary Plass, who cast the dissenting vote, that the city is opening itself up to lawsuits from the tobacco industry and retailers.
He conceded that cigarettes are dirty, expensive and unhealthy, but he said hiking the age limit is something to be addressed at the state or federal level.
He noted that 18-year-olds still will be allowed to smoke, just not buy cigarettes in the 4 square miles that constitute Healdsburg.
“My interest is to protect taxpayers from litigation,” he said, adding that it could end up costing Healdsburg “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in legal fees to defend its ordinance.
Plass read from a number of letters in opposition to the city’s restrictions on tobacco, including from a local convenience store owner who said it would put him at a competitive disadvantage and it was redundant because retailers already are licensed to sell tobacco by the state and are inspected by federal, state and county officials.
Plass also cited a letter written by an attorney for the National Association of Tobacco Outlets warning the city that it would be in opposition to the state law that sets the legal age for tobacco sales at 18.
But Mayor Wood said the city is not pre-empting the state criminal code that sets the legal age for tobacco sales at 18. Instead he said the city is raising the age limit though a civil process that will make retailers subject to losing their license if they don’t abide by the age restriction.
Plass also sought to get fellow council members to release memos from the city attorney that apparently warned of the legal vulnerability that city might have. But the motion died with only Councilman Shaun McCaffery voting in favor of making the memo public.
“It’s obvious there’s a potential for attack from the tobacco industry and people on the other side of this,” said McCaffery, who nevertheless voted to approve the ordinance.
“I’m totally in favor of this. Not because we are the first city in the state to do this, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Councilwoman Susan Jones, who said it was appropriate to address the issue locally because it would probably take years to raise the age limit at the state level.
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.
Some other cities nationwide have increased the age to buy tobacco. In 2013, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law an ordinance prohibiting sale of tobacco to anyone under 21.
The Healdsburg council was prompted to tighten tobacco restrictions last year by retired Healdsburg physician David Anderson. He said raising the age limit will discourage teens from starting to smoke and send a message to young people, parents, educators and visitors.
“You are going to save lives, many of them, and I thank you for it,” he told the council Monday.
Many kids under 18 now get cigarettes from slightly older teens who can legally buy tobacco, according to statistics cited at Monday’s council meeting.
About 90 percent of all adult smokers began by age 18 or earlier, and 5.6 million children alive today will die prematurely from smoking without strong action to prevent it, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health released in January.
One of every two people who smoke long term will die from the effects of smoking, Anderson said. “So if we keep two people from smoking we have saved one life.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls tobacco “the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States,” saying 443,000 people die from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke each year.
Healdsburg City Manager Marjie Pettus noted that the State Legislature has made reducing youth access to tobacco products a high priority. Pharmacists associations and the state Medical Association have called for prohibitions of tobacco sales in drug stores and pharmacies.
Earlier this year CVS Health, the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain, unilaterally decided to stop selling tobacco products in its stores, although the move was estimated to cost the company $2 billion in sales to customers buying cigarettes and other products.
A handful of cities have enacted laws curtailing the sale of tobacco at stores where a pharmacy is present, including in San Francisco.
There are several pharmacies in Healdsburg that sell tobacco now and apparently would be affected, including two Rite-Aid stores and the Safeway store.
The city’s new ordinance defines a pharmacy as a location where pharmaceuticals are for sale, regardless of whether the business sells other retail goods.
The City Council earlier this year passed an ordinance that also cracked down on electronic cigarettes, banning their use in public places and most places of employment. The council also approved 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.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.