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.