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Pima County may increase tobacco purchasing age

Person smoking e-vape pen.

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Person smoking e-vape pen.

On Tuesday, Aug. 6, the Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to update multiple local ordinances in an attempt to curtail youth tobacco smoking and better classify e-cigarettes. The updates would include raising the minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21; imposing many of the same restrictions and prohibitions on e-cigarettes as traditional tobacco; and creating a "retail permit system" that includes enforcement and regular inspection of tobacco retailers, including vape shops, in unincorporated Pima County.

The Pima County Board of Health recommended these ordinance changes after several studies were released detailing a rise in e-cigarette use among youth. According to the Center for Disease Control's "Vital Signs" tobacco use study, "Between 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use nationwide has increased from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent among high school students and from 3.3 percent to 4.9 percent among middle school students." The 2018 Arizona Youth Survey also estimates more than 40 percent of Pima County youth in grades 8, 10 and 12 have used e-cigarettes at least once.

"Many of our patients are those suffering from the terrible diseases and health problems caused by tobacco use and addiction to nicotine," said Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona President Bryan Jeffries in a letter of support for these ordinance changes. "Curbing tobacco influence among young adults should help prevent a new cohort of lifetime smokers."

The Pima County Health Department lists one of the core reasons for the proposed age change is a survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which found that 95 percent of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 21.

If the ordinances are updated, Pima County residents currently between the ages of 18 and 21 will still be able to purchase tobacco products. Individuals currently younger than 18, however, will not be able to make such purchases until they are 21.

The revisions would be to Pima County, Arizona Code of Ordinances Chapters 8.04 and 8.50. If passed, this would also create ordinance Chapter 8.52 for "Tobacco Retail Establishments."

Along with these potential changes, the City of Tucson intends to delegate the enforcement of its tobacco ordinances to Pima County starting January 1, 2020. In this agreement, Pima will issue tobacco permits for both Tucson and Pima County. The county estimates the annual cost of taking the role of this enforcement would be $153,000.

"There are 590 vendors in the County who would be impacted," said Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik. "Divide those numbers and the annual permit fee being proposed to the supervisors is $290. That is not even the cost of a single chest x-ray for someone suffering from smoke-related health problems."

In the months leading up to the vote, Pima County facilitated multiple stakeholder and public comment meetings on the changes. One of the major sources of comment was that by including e-cigarettes in existing smoking ordinances, the county could effectively ban indoor vaping, even in vape shops.

In public comments on the upcoming vote, several e-cigarette users and vape shop owners expressed concerns about banning indoor vaping, saying that customers having the ability to try their devices in-store prior to purchase is a core aspect of the business.

One public comment against the proposed changes read: "Banning vaping indoors sends the message to smokers that vaping is as dangerous as burning combustible tobacco, which is just not true... Please leave it to the business owners to decide how they want to operate their business when it comes to this issue".

Following this feedback process, the county updated the proposed ordinance language to incorporate these suggestions, writing in a memorandum: "Age appropriate customers of vape shops should have the ability to sample product in such establishments at the owner's discretion. This is currently the case with combustible tobacco products. This change provides parity among retailers and allows customers to try the products before purchasing."

In public polling, major themes against the proposed ordinance changes included vaping being a healthy alternative to smoking, economic impacts on local businesses, military members being unable to purchase tobacco, smoking being an individual decision and beliefs that raising the purchasing age wouldn't actually stop youth smoking and vaping.

One public comment read: "This will not stop smoking. This will only criminalize our youth."

The City of Tucson also conducted a series of surveys on over 400 Pima residents, and found that 64 percent of county residents were in favor of raising the age. 

More by Jeff Gardner

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