Is Columbia's Tobacco 21 Ordinance Working?

Mar 17, 2015

 When the city council passed the Tobacco 21 ordinance by a 6-1 vote on December 15th, one of the big topics of discussion was whether it would actually have an impact on keeping cigarettes out of the hands of people under 21.  

According to Jacob Jones, a 20 year old student at the University of Missouri and a smoker, it hasn’t.

“From people I’ve talked to and people that I know that smoke, this law has not kept them from smoking, it just has caused them to travel further distances to get the tobacco products that they use and smoke,” Jones Said.

So for Jones, that means he’s spending more money outside city limits.

“Just like with anybody that smokes, really the only place where I buy tobacco is at gas stations and it’s usually when I go fill up and get gas. So if I’d driving 10 miles south of town to Ashland to get cigarettes, I’m going to get gas there,” Jones added.

Jones estimates he spends around 100 dollars a week that he would be spending in Columbia outside of the city because of this ordinance.  There’s no current estimate on the financial impact of the ordinance, but city councilmember Ian Thomas believes the benefits outweigh the potential economic impact.

“I think we all felt that that downside was vastly more than compensated by the overall public health benefit of a lot of under 21’s who will not take the trouble to travel outside city limits,” Thomas said.

The thought that people under 21 will not travel outside of Columbia may be true.  According to Doctor Kevin Everett of the University of Missouri Health System, Needham, Massachusetts instituted a Tobacco 21 Ordinance in 2007 and since then, the high school smoking rate there has decreased by 50%.

But in order for the ordinance to be truly effective, it will need to be enforced.  Columbia is relying on a complaint based system to enforce the policy and so far, there has not been a complaint made or citation issued from the Columbia Police Department. 

This is very different than the enforcement in Evanston, Illinois which instituted a Tobacco 21 in October.  There, the city police run sting operations to test the businesses.  Evanston’s 4th ward Alderman Don Wilson explained their enforcement. 

“We do have what I’ll call enforcement so the police will go out and check the businesses that are selling those kinds of products are compliant.  So essentially what they’ll do is send in an underage person to buy it and they’ll see if they check the ID’s and that,” Wilson said.

According to the most recent compliance check, 33 of 34 businesses in Evanston properly ID’d the minor. 

An important note about tobacco 21 ordinances is that attempting to purchase cigarettes, even if you are under the age of 21 is not illegal.  The statute puts the entire burden on the merchant.  It reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell tobacco products or tobacco product paraphernalia, alternative nicotine products or vapor products to a minor.”

In addition, it is perfectly legal for those 18-21 to consume, and possess the products listed in the ordinance.  Because of that, some people don’t even leave Columbia to purchase tobacco. Jones said, “I’ll usually try to get access to tobacco somewhere in Columbia, whether it be through a friend or just going in and kind of banking on the attendant not carding me.”

To test how well stores in Columbia enforce the ordinance I accompanied Jacob to 6 places that sell tobacco.  Out of those, 4 of them ID’d and denied him cigarettes. Two however didn’t ask for identification and sold him tobacco products including cigarette papers and cigarillos.

A few nights later I went back to the six stores to conduct the experiment again.  Even though I am 22 years old, I was checking to see if I would be asked for identification.  Only 2 of the 6 locations asked to see my ID before selling me tobacco and tobacco products.

Executive Director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association Ron Leone is not surprised that enforcement has been an issue.

“When you have 21 in Columbia and 18 across the rest of the state, there are inevitably going to be mistakes on behalf of the consumer and on behalf of the retailer and that is why we made the argument to the city council to not change the age,” Leone said.

As of now, there are no plans to change the way Columbia enforces the Tobacco 21 ordinance.