As the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes in Ann Arbor changes from 18 to 21 with the turn of the new year, the community reacts with mixed opinions.

The resolution, introduced by Ann Arbor Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3), passed its initial read July 18, before being officially approved Aug. 4 by a City Council vote of 9-2.

Ann Arbor is the first city in Michigan to implement the measure as part of the Tobacco 21 national movement. This proactive effort, led by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation when aims to reduce smoking and tobacco-related health problems.

The Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Canton, Michigan— working in collaboration with community members and local officials — funded signs for retailers to post in their stores with the new legal tobacco purchase age as well as the city press release explaining the measure.

As of right now, there is no developed plan to educate local tobacco retailers. However, Grand said there may be further action if the ordinance poses complications.

“If we feel like something else needs to be done, we’ll certainly watch it carefully,” she 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.”

Grand said one cited advantage of the policy is that under the new regulation the tobacco purchase age is now the same as the alcohol purchase age. She said she hopes this regulation will simplify business for retailers.

In support of the ordinance, Grand also pointed to high-school-age students, explaining that it is common for people 15 to 17 years old to experiment with tobacco, and that most people in this age range acquire their tobacco products from 18- to 20-year-olds. In this regard, she said the ordinance’s benefits are twofold.

“You help curtail initiation by cutting off that very important social source of tobacco products, which typically is an 18-year-old that still goes to school or is in some sort of social network of a 15- to 17-year-old,” she said.

Additionally, the measure could stop 18- to 20-year-olds who are transitioning from experimental to regular tobacco users by making it more difficult for them to purchase products and become addicted.

Specifically in a college town, with many residents in the 18-to-20 age range, Grand said the ordinance may be particularly helpful. Though she recognized that someone who is truly addicted can acquire tobacco through other means, she said she hopes the ordinance will be able to positively influence students.

Though University of Michigan buildings have been designated smoke-free since 2011, there is still uncertainty as to whether the policy is effective. Resources such as the Tobacco Consultation Service and Wolverine Wellness offer treatment and counseling opportunities for students.

Additionally, Grand said the ordinance specifically does not punish 18- to 20-year-olds who use tobacco, it just prevents them from purchasing it.

“We removed any penalties for youth possession, because it is never the intent to penalize use for either normal experimentation or addiction to tobacco products,” she said. “The penalties are on the retailer and even then we allow a lot of discretion with the new ordinance so that we can leave time for education.”

Retailers’ Opposition

From a different perspective, local retailers are not happy with the ordinance, as it will directly hurt business.

Chris Rosenthal, owner of Tobacco Rose Cigars, spoke against the ordinance at the Aug. 4 meeting, and to the Daily shortly thereafter.

In a recent interview with Rosenthal, he said the ordinance will undoubtedly hurt business because it knocks out three years of potential legal purchasing of tobacco. However, he said, the biggest problem was how the act was conceived.

When the resolution was presented to the council, Rosenthal said Grand emphasized the importance of eliminating the early run-ins with the law by people who are 18 to 20 years old, but did so only by preventing retailers from selling it to them

“It’s not illegal for them to attempt to purchase it, and it’s not illegal for them to use it,” he said. “All she really did in her attempt to keep the younger generation out of early legal trouble is force business straight out of town.”

Rosenthal added that there are nearby towns like Ypsilanti where people can easily go to get tobacco.

People can make big lifetime decisions at 18, such as whether to join the military, get married, sign contracts and take out student loans, Rosenthal argued and it should be the same with choosing whether to purchase and use tobacco products.

City Council Opposition

The resolution’s two opponents, Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2), voted against the ordinance because it violates state law. The Michigan Tobacco Products Tax Act states city municipalities shall not create new ordinances regarding the sale of tobacco products

In an interview with the Daily, Eaton said, though he agrees with the spirit of the measure, he could not vote for it as it goes against his duty as a council member to uphold state law.

“I think it is pretty clear that state law preempts our efforts to regulate tobacco sales,” he said. “Although I would like to regulate tobacco in this fashion, I think it needs to be done by the state, or the state needs to let us make these decisions. We can’t simply decide to do this in contravention of state law.”

According to Eaton, a vendor could challenge the ordinance in anticipation of being written up under the law, or if enforcement action should be taken by the city, a vendor could fight against it.

Eaton added though he believes it is necessary to regulate tobacco for health reasons and educate people on its side effects, he does not feel this is the best way to address the problem.

“I completely understand the desire to dissuade young people from smoking,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a criminal problem, I think it’s a health problem. I’m not sure how you address it in a meaningful way. I do believe that the sponsors of this ordinance had the best of intentions, and I don’t take them to task for what they want to do.”

In response to potential conflict, Grand said no one is sure what to expect, as the state government can be unpredictable. However, she said she hopes the state will recognize the advantages of the ordinance.

“I would hope that they would recognize that this is really in the interest of public health and where tobacco prevention and control policy is going nationally, and let us try to have some local control and work it out and see if it actually makes a difference,” she said.

Grand pointed to the regulatory environment in California, which is very similar to that in Michigan. Several municipalities there passed Tobacco 21 ordinances, before it became state law.

Expert Response 

University facilities are excited about the ordinance, in hope that it will reduce tobacco use by college students and future health problems.

Cliff Douglas, adjunct lecturer of public health and the American Cancer Society’s vice president for Tobacco Control, compared the situation to raising the tax on cigarettes in one state. He said though someone can easily go to another state to purchase, measures like these are still effective.

“We find that, in fact, it reduces consumption,” he said. “It reduces prevalence — the number of people who smoke. It’s not perfect, but it’s an effective public health policy.

Regarding the legal repercussions of the ordinance, Douglas, also an attorney, said it is very possible the ordinance does not defy state law. He said the language used in the state law is not clear and it does not limit a local municipality from adjusting the minimum age of tobacco purchases.

“The reality is that legal experts have determined that there probably is not a preemptive effect from this law,” he said. “Opponents are welcome if they choose to challenge it in court, but first of all, it will be defended vigorously if they do that. Mayor (Christopher) Taylor and others have made that clear.”

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