Pima County and the City of Tucson will hear proposals Aug. 6, to raise the age to purchase tobacco, electronic cigarettes and nicotine products from 18 to 21. If they sign on, they'll become part of a growing national trend.
Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., require tobacco purchasers to be 21; more than 475 counties and cities in 29 states are also on board.
Ginny Chadwick, Western regional director with Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, commonly called Tobacco 21, said the organization's founder began working on raising the age in 1996. It wasn't until 2013, when New York City became the eighth jurisdiction in the country to raise the tobacco age, that it took hold nationally. Prior to that, only small communities had passed the laws. Tobacco 21 laws now cover 50 percent of the population, Chadwick said.
"It's mostly been at the local level," Chadwick said. "Arizona is actually one of the states that has been slower to adopt policy, but we do have local policy in 29 states, and Flagstaff just recently passed the national model. So Flagstaff policy is probably one of the strongest policies in the nation."
There are three jurisdictions in Arizona that require purchasers to be 21 – Flagstaff, Cottonwood and Douglas.
"When we pass tobacco 21, we're really putting the penalty on the retailer who is making a profit off of selling a deadly, addictive substance to our kids," Chadwick said. "This policy is a prevention policy. It's not about punishing those who are already addicted to tobacco products... Really, it's holding the seller accountable."
Pima County, Tucson
Rebecca O'Brien, program manager for Pima County's tobacco and chronic disease prevention program, said they worked with Tucson to develop the ordinances over the past year. The county's ordinance would have three new parts – raising the age restriction from 18 to 21; creating a retail permit system in unincorporated Pima County; and adding e-cigarettes to existing ordinances.
Tucson's ordinance would be similar but would add a retail permit system. Tucson tobacco retailers already pay a fee within the city; if the ordinance passes, businesses will be paying that fee to the county's health department, which would be responsible for education and enforcement. The new retail permit would replace the city's current permit and would cost more.
The retail permit would be new to tobacco retailers in unincorporated Pima County. The fee is intended to cover the health department's cost for education and enforcement and would not be more than $300, O'Brien said.
The new ordinance would treat vaping the same as smoking — banned where smoking is prohibited. Currently, vaping is allowed in buildings such as bars and restaurants, but if the ordinances are passed, vaping would be allowed only in shops specializing in tobacco and e-cigarette sales. The county's ordinance would only affect unincorporated Pima County and would not change restrictions within Sahuarita town limits or those on reservations.
According to the proposed county ordinance, retailers who violate the age restriction would receive a written notice of a violation. The first violation would require the owner, operator or manager to complete an education course. A second violation within 36 months would result in a $600 fine and suspended operating permit for 30 days. A third violation within 36 months would result in a $1,000 fine and a suspended operating permit for six months. Violating retailers would also be assessed for re-inspection costs.
The ordinance would also fine retailers who sell tobacco products without an operating permit or any employee who has violated local or state laws regulating tobacco sales. The first violation within 36 months would given a $1,000 fine; $1,500 for a second violation; additional violation within 36 months would be given a $2,500 fine.
The county ordinance has a grandfather clause allowing individuals who are 18 before Jan. 1, 2020, to continue to purchase tobacco.
Tucson City council member Steve Kozachik originally had concerns over what enforcing the ordinance would mean logistically and financially.
"Are we going to be putting a law on the books that we don't have the backing or the ability to go out and enforce," Kozachik said. "It's not a revelation to anybody that smoking is hazardous to your health... So that's not the discussion from my perspective. It's how are you going to enforce it."
The county memo to the Board of Supervisors estimated enforcement and education would cost $153,949 annually, and said the permit fee would be at least $290.
Kozachik was also concerned about resources at the Tucson Police Department given over to enforce the ordinance. With the county assuming the responsibility, Kozachik now supports the tobacco 21 law.
"It's one entity doing the enforcement and it takes the burden off the back of TPD, and the county already has its people in place to this with," Kozachik said.
Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy said he will not support the ordinance.
"I think that it's an unnecessary regulatory burden on business and business owners," Christy said. "If we go back to the same format that you can vote for an elected official and the president of the United States and you can be issued a gun and sent overseas to fight for your country, you certainly have the ability at age 18 to decide whether or not you want to use tobacco products."
A survey by the American Heart Association and CityHealth – with 402 responses from Tucson and 401 from Pima County – found 64 percent of respondents in Pima County and 68 percent in Tucson were in favor of raising the age. In Pima County, 29 percent opposed raising the age, with 28 percent in Tucson.
The county also held 12 stakeholder meetings from Feb. 8 to March 4, about the ordinance, where 89 people and 21 organizations attended. There were also 41 online public responses with 21 in favor of the ordinance and 20 opposed.
For Chadwick, raising the age would cut access to tobacco and e-cigarette products to minors who would be less likely to have friends who are 21 than classmates who are 18 and can purchase tobacco for them.
"Right now, we have the largest youth uptake in tobacco use that we've ever seen, from 2017 to 2018," she said. "We've seen a 78 percent increase in youth use of e-cigarettes. We have almost reversed decades of public health gains on tobacco usage in the last two years with the rise in popularity of flavored tobacco products. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 banned flavored tobacco products, but there's a loophole with e-cigarettes."
Retailers speak up
Just east of Sahuarita, off a dirt road, sits Jill's Little Store. The convenience store is a local hangout and has its regulars. Jamie Martinez, the manager, is standing at the register on a slow day. The store is now owned by her father, E.K. Ongley; it had been owned for years by her mother, Jill, who died in 2017.
Martinez has heard about tobacco 21 laws but had not been following it closely. Jill's Little Store is in unincorporated Pima County and will be affected by the ordinance if it passes.
"Will it hurt business," Martinez asked. "No, but is it annoying? Yes."
If the county charges a $300 retail permit fee every year it would break down to $25 a month, and the cost would be absorbed instead of increasing cigarette prices, Martinez said.
Martinez said she is annoyed and doesn't understand why it would cost her more than double her annual beer and wine liquor license fee of $120 to sell cigarettes. She said it's also annoying that she would be paying a fee for the county to inspect, but they would also be getting money from fines when retailers have violations.
Karissa Nava, owner of Amado Mini Market, doesn't like the ordinance but said it won't change anything.
"If they're not old enough to purchase it, they'll find somebody who is old enough to purchase it," Nava said. "I don't think it's going to be effective."
Nava doesn't think the permit fee would be a burden or have any affect on her prices. Any price increase would more likely come from the tobacco companies after a portion of the market is cut out, she said.
Back at Jill's, Martinez may find the permit fee a bother but she is not entirely opposed to it.
"From a completely personal standpoint, my mother, who was Jill, passed away two-and-a-half years ago of lung cancer and she started smoking at a very early age," Martinez said. "I certainly wouldn't be opposed to them raising the age limit because it's been a pretty tough thing to go through losing someone to lung cancer. I don't know if it will prevent them from smoking but it sure would be nice."