City Studying Tobacco Licenses to Improve Tobacco 21 Enforcement

May 29, 2017

City staff are studying how to implement a tobacco retail license to pay for better enforcement of the city's Tobacco 21 ordinance.

Credit Sudipto Sarkar / flickr

In a letter to the City Council on April 25, the Columbia-Boone County Board of Health recommended all tobacco retailers in the city be required to buy tobacco licenses. The council accepted the report at its May 15 meeting, as well as an offer from Stephanie Browning, director of Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, to work with City Counselor Nancy Thompson to explore the best ways to implement an ordinance.

There was no set timeline for  draft ordinances. Under the Missouri Hancock Amendment, the city would have to seek voter approval of any proposal that includes fees or taxes like other cities use.

"Ultimately, (the voters) will pay for it because the businesses pass their costs on," Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said.

The council passed the Tobacco 21 ordinance, the first of its kind in Missouri, with a 6-1 vote on Dec. 15, 2014, according to previous Missourian reporting. The ordinance prohibits the purchase, not the consumption, of tobacco products by people younger than 21 in the city.

"The real intent of Tobacco 21 is to take cigarettes out of the hands of kids in high school," Trapp said.

Former First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick was the driving force behind the Tobacco 21 ordinance.

"We are one of the few Missouri communities that passed Tobacco 21 and doesn't have retail licensing," Chadwick said, adding that she testified to the board in support of licensing.

The recommendation would require all retail locations that sell tobacco products to buy a city license to help fund two compliance checks each year. The Board of Health also recommended suspending for 30 days the tobacco licenses of retailers caught violating the city ordinance five or more times within 24 months.

In the letter containing its recommendations, the board cited an article by the Columbia Tribune about lax enforcement of the 2014 Tobacco 21 ordinance and "testimony" that only six city compliance checks were made in the past two years. The letter doesn't specify from whom that testimony came.

"A lot of discussion was about how the current ordinance relies on police to enforce it, and it's not a high priority for them since they are understaffed," Board of Health Vice Chairwoman Mahree Skala said.

The board also cited the results of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regular checks in Columbia for compliance with the federal law banning tobacco sales to people younger than 18. Data on the FDA's Tobacco Compliance Database show that since 2015, 23 of the 88 retail locations had at least one violation.

One store accrued enough violations that it was barred from selling tobacco for six months. Under FDA policy, stores that receive those bans, known as No-Tobacco-Sale orders, are barred permanently from selling tobacco if they receive three such orders, according to the Board of Health's letter.

Skala said state workers conduct the compliance checks. They cited some of the establishments repeatedly, Skala said, adding that that's why the board also recommended suspending licenses for repeated violations.

The recommended program would license locations rather than retailers so that chains would not be affected by one location's repeated offenses. 

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association is against a city tobacco retail license, instead recommending a statewide approach in a letter to the Board of Health. The association argues that the state already prohibits sale to minors and issues citations. Ron Leone, the association's executive director, declined to comment.

Tobacco products made up 37.4 percent of in-store sales in 2014, according to a 2016 National Association of Convenience Stores overview.