Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette ruled Friday that Ann Arbor’s decision to raise the legal age of buying cigarettes and tobacco products from 18 to 21 is unlawful because it contradicts a state law.
The city passed a local ordinance in August to raise the purchasing age of tobacco products and e-cigarettes by three years. The law received criticism from the student community, as the vote was held in the summer when most students, who are the ones primarily affected by the change, were not in town to vote.
According to a Detroit Free Press article, Schuette decided that the local ordinance goes against the state’s policy on tobacco sales, which sets the “age of majority” to 18. He said that this law takes precedence over a city ordinance. However, the attorney general’s opinion is just a suggestion and does not have any binding effects on the policy.
Backed by the national Tobacco 21 movement, which works to reduce smoking and tobacco-related health issues, Ann Arbor is the first city in Michigan to raise the legal age necessary to buy tobacco from 18 to 21; 212 other cities in the country have enacted the policy.
The Ann Arbor restriction went into effect on Jan. 1, though no official plans to educate tobacco retailers on how to implement this policy have been outlined by the city. City Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) said last month that further action will be taken if the policy proves confusing for local shops.
“If we feel like something else needs to be done, we’ll certainly watch it carefully,” Grand said. “If there are a whole bunch of questions or if we just feel like retailers are not getting the message, we’ll look to see if we need to do anything else.”
University students aren’t the only ones upset by the policy. According to his personal website, state Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) introduced an opposing bill in the state legislature in September to protect local shops against city ordinances that may conflict with state law. He also asked Schuette to review the ordinance.
The ordinance faced additional opposition back in August from City Council members Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2), largely because it contradicts state law. Eaton said that he supports a change in the purchasing age, but that it would have to come from the state.
“I wasn't opposed to the intent, but when we take our oath of office, we have to uphold state law,” Eaton said.
Eaton said in the previous interview that City Council has recently set up a policy committee to avoid conflicts like this in the future, but he doesn’t see the city revisiting the tobacco ordinance anytime soon. The council members who were in favor of the change are unlikely to bring it up, and as the opposition, Eaton said he won’t either.
“I don't expect that those who prevail will come back and revisit this, and I'm not going to bring it up,” Eaton said.
A press release on Jones’s website from September outlines his cause for concern regarding the ordinance. His main objection is that it would do more harm than good.
“This local law will do absolutely nothing to stop people from smoking; they will simply drive just outside the city and purchase what they want,” Jones said. “However, it will really harm the owners of small mom-and-pop stores and gas stations in the city who are just trying to make a living.”