City Council supports resolution to raise minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21

Monday, July 18, 2016 - 11:15pm

A resolution raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 passed its initial read with only one dissenting vote at Monday’s Ann Arbor City Council meeting. The proposed legislation will still need to be approved by the council in a meeting next month before being fully accepted.

The proposed ordinance would raise the age at which Ann Arbor retailers may sell tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, while also decriminalizing underage tobacco possession of both.

In a phone interview prior to the meeting, Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) — who has been the leading proponent of the resolution — explained that, though the ordinance would explicitly affect those between ages 18 and 20, it would also indirectly target tobacco usage by younger teenagers.

"Most 15 to 17-year-olds get their tobacco products from 18 and 19-year-olds or other similar social sources, so this ordinance helps block that source," Grand said. "What it also does for the 18 to 20-year-olds is it provides an onset barrier when those individuals are most likely to be moving from experimental tobacco use to regular or habitual tobacco use."

Pointing to California, Hawaii and Massachusetts as examples, Grand said she hoped a municipal ordinance would eventually pave the way for other city governments in Michigan as well as the state government.

When asked why the ordinance was being pushed during the summer, when most University of Michigan students — who would be directly impacted by the resolution — are absent from campus and unable to participate in public debate over the issue, Grand was dismissive of student input, saying she has the backing of a broad coalition comprising local medical and public health professionals.

"My main interest is developing this model and moving it out to other communities," Grand said. "As much as I would like to get the input from the University students, that’s not my primary goal. And honestly, if they were against the ordinance, I really don’t think it would change my mind."

While affected, University students would still be able to take a free city bus line to Meijer on Ann Arbor-Saline Road, just outside city limits and therefore not subject to city ordinances, and purchase tobacco products there. Grand pointed out that in past cases, even if neighboring municipalities did not pass a similar ordinance, there would still be a decline in teenage tobacco usage.

All council members, except Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4), voted to support the first reading of the bill, moving it forward to be discussed at a second reading in the future, before a final vote will be held. Councilmember Eaton said that he thought the bill was a good idea but that he could not support it because of the fact that it violated state law.

"I am vividly aware of the cost of smoking, but I can't support this ordinance,” Eaton said. “The Michigan Tobacco Products Tax Act says that we shall not impose any new requirements or prohibitions pertaining to the sale of tobacco, and that's exactly what we're doing here. I think that when there's a state law that tells us not to do something, we're ill-advised to do it regardless of how passionate we are about the intent behind the law."

Councilmembers Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) and Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) also expressed concerns about the conflict the ordinance would create with state law but voted to support the first reading.

Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) asked City Attorney Stephen Postema what the legal ramifications of passing such an ordinance would be, but Postema said he wasn't prepared to answer that question at the time.