Board backs raising age for tobacco

Board backs raising age for tobacco
Posted on 08/06/2016

County commissioners seek a draft ordinance placing cigarettes and other products off-limits until age 21

By Saul Hubbard

The Register-Guard

Lane County is moving ahead with a proposal to raise to 21 from 18 the legal age for buying and using tobacco products.

The Lane County commissioners, acting as the county board of health, on Tuesday formally endorsed the concept, after declaring their initial support in March. They directed county staff to draft a potential ordinance, to begin outreach efforts to leaders of Lane County’s 12 cities and to organize meetings in several communities in coming months.

The commissioners hope to implement the change countywide, but it’s unclear whether the county would have the authority to require a city that objects to the policy to comply. The county hopes to pass its ordinance before the end of the year.

Commissioner Faye Stewart described the struggles two of his relatives have had in trying to quit smoking.

“It’s a very difficult product to separate yourself from,” he said.

The proposed increase in the legal age for tobacco would be part of a growing campaign, known as Tobacco 21, to pass similar local and state laws throughout the country, due to a lack of action at the federal level.

California and Hawaii have passed statewide laws on the issue, but a similar proposal died in the Oregon Legislature last year. About 180 local governments have raised the minimum smoking age to 21 as well. A 2015 national study by the Institute of Medicine determined, using simulation models, that raising the tobacco use age to 21 could reduce by 12 percent the number of teenagers smoking cigarettes. That’s because teenagers often gain access to tobacco from legal buyers younger than 21, the study found. The vast majority of tobacco users start smoking in their teenage years, studies have shown.

A 21-and-over policy for tobacco — like the ones that are in place for alcohol and marijuana — would “disrupt the pipeline of tobacco access for younger teens,” said Karen Gaffney, assistant director of Lane County’s health and human services division.

Commissioner Pete Sorenson said the proposal is based on data that shows “this is going to save lives, and save money” due to lower health care costs.

“People my age are in the generation where their parents were in the military in World War II and they were given cigarettes for the purpose of addicting them,” he said.

County officials hope that city councils will agree with their tobacco policy and require tobacco retailers to comply. But commissioners Sorenson and Jay Bozievich argued that the cities won’t need to do so for the higher age limit to be implemented countywide.

That’s because county governments are responsible for local public health policy — and those powers were clarified and strengthened under a 2015 state law.

“We are, as the county, the board of health and the public health authority for all of Lane County,” Bozievich said. “The cities don’t necessarily have the ability to say ‘no’ if we decide there’s a public health need to do this.”

County attorneys have agreed with that interpretation, county public health spokesman Jason Davis said.

However, the 2015 state law did not specifically preempt Oregon cities’ authority to set their own health laws. And cities have “home rule” authority under the Oregon Constitution, which typically gives them control over local policy within their boundaries.

The question has not been tested yet in the courts.

The county ordinance would be drafted to cover current and future tobacco products and would likely require retailers to post notices about the new rule.

It could also potentially exempt from the new rule people now between the age of 18 and 21. And it would grant county health officials the power to make compliance checks on retailers.

The new policy is only expected to have a “very minimal impact” on local law enforcement operations.

There is “very little police enforcement of underage (tobacco) possession now, except occasionally with school resource officers,” the staff memo to the board states. Local law enforcement agencies “would anticipate the same would be true if the law increase the age from 18 to 21.”

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