Minimum age to buy cigarettes goes up in Healdsburg

Under 21? Don't bother trying to buy cigarettes in Healdsburg. Starting today, it's the first city in California to cut off tobacco sales to anyone under the age of 21, a law some are calling foolish.|

Starting Wednesday, Healdsburg becomes the first city in California to cut off sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

The groundbreaking ordinance, which raises the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, is intended to discourage teenagers from starting to smoke.

The 15 tobacco retailers in town are skeptical it will really make a difference in cutting teen smoking.

“I think it’s kind of foolish. I don’t think it will change things a whole lot,” said Aman Gill, whose family owns the Fast Lane Gas store near the central Healdsburg freeway exit, which sells tobacco products.

Already, he said, his under-21 customers have told him they’ll just have a friend buy for them, or they’ll pick up cigarettes the next time they’re in Santa Rosa.

“People in Healdsburg will just go to Windsor, or Cloverdale,” agreed Prit Pal Singh, another tobacco retailer whose son owns Healdsburg Liquors.

But advocates for raising the age for buying tobacco say that cities in other parts of the country that started the trend a decade ago, such as Needham, Mass., have seen a major drop in teen smoking.

“If we can get someone to 21 without smoking, very few people start at that age,” said retired Healdsburg physician David Anderson, who prompted the Healdsburg City Council to tighten tobacco restrictions last October. Retailers were given nearly nine months to prepare for the law to take effect.

Anderson noted that several other cities in Massachusetts, as well as New York City and Evanston, Ill., have increased the age to 21 for buying tobacco. Recently the state of Hawaii and Santa Clara County also raised the age to 21.

And former Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood, who last year was elected to the state Assembly, is principal co-author of a bill that would raise the age in California to 21 for buying and consuming tobacco products.

“By doing something bold at the local level, it’s gotten the attention of all sorts of places,” Wood said Tuesday. “We did something in little old Healdsburg that’s gotten the attention of people across the country.”

He said that other cities and counties in California are considering following Healdsburg’s example.

Senate Bill 151, co-authored by Wood and Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, was approved by the state Senate, but it’s chances appear less certain in the Assembly. Wood said he was disappointed that it was referred to a government oversight committee that deals with alcohol and gambling regulations rather than to a health committee.

The oversight committee, he said, is “the tobacco companies’ home turf. I think they will work hard to defeat it in that committee.”

“If they know nothing of me other than this, I am persistent. If it doesn’t pass in the Assembly I will look for opportunities in the future,” Wood said. “I’m very committed to this.”

Last year when the Healdsburg City Council increased the age to 21 for buying tobacco, including e-cigarettes, Wood was one of the most passionate voices for doing so.

“This is about trying to save people’s lives - prevent disease,” he said then. “I see more young people than ever before smoking. It’s distressing.”

The ordinance also prohibited any store with a pharmacy from selling tobacco products, such as Safeway, which no longer sells tobacco in Healdsburg.

The ordinance, which came at the urging of doctors and the American Lung Association, requires the city’s tobacco retailers to obtain a special city license of $460 per year to pay for enforcement and monitoring by the Police Department.

Police Chief Kevin Burke said he expects the businesses will comply with the ordinance.

“Like the overwhelming majority of laws, we will count on voluntary compliance as the main mechanism,” he said.

But he said the city will conduct decoy operations from time to time, i.e. stings using underage buyers, to ensure retailers are only selling to people 21 and older.

Police Code Enforcement officer Kevin Young said he reached out to all the businesses that sell tobacco products to inform them about the new ordinance and answer questions. Some retailers estimate they will lose about 10 percent of their tobacco sales when the 18-to-21 age group can’t buy the products.

“It’s going to be a disadvantage to us,” said Aamir Khan, co-owner of a couple stores that sell tobacco products in Healdsburg - Cigarettes City and the Healdsburg Emporium. “It’s kind of unfair for retailers in Healdsburg.”

Singh, who was behind the counter Tuesday at Healdsburg Liquors, wasn’t happy about seeing the over-21 rule apply only to Healdsburg. But he acknowledged it could have a benefit if it were countywide, or statewide “because guys under 21 won’t smoke. Smoking is not a good habit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas

Editor’s note: Assemblyman Jim Wood is a co-author of SB 151, the legislation that would raise the age for buying and consuming tobacco products to 21 in California. An earlier version of this story did not accurately reflect Wood’s involvement with the bill.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.