Editorial: Tobacco 21 deserves swift repeal

The new law is unlikely to stop many from smoking, but sure to hurt local businesses.

On Dec. 15, Columbia City Council voted 6-1 to pass Tobacco 21, a bill limiting tobacco sales in Columbia to persons over the age of 21, into law. Almost immediately, efforts to stifle the law began — most notably a petition to put it to a citywide vote.

There are a number of problems created by Tobacco 21: economic, legal, moral and practical. We think the council’s stated rationale for implementing the law — protecting youth and avoiding the long-term medical consequences of smoking — are insufficient to justify the host of negatives it brings, and we hope the law is swiftly erased from the books.

Council members who voted in favor for the bill (6-1) say the law will dissuade Columbians under 21 from starting or continuing to smoke, saving the city and its residents money from reduced health problems down the road. The public health costs imposed on Columbians by the tobacco use of their fellow citizens was described by Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe in December as being equivalent to “18 dollars per pack.”

But most people aged 18-20 in this city are college students who, besides having little voice in city politics, are often only temporary residents of Columbia. Public health savings for Columbians that could result from this one-dimensional law are nebulous, uncertain and quite possibly trivial.

In the immediate and very real present, the decision by City Council to not allow anyone under the age of 21 to purchase cigarettes tangibly hurts small businesses in Columbia. City Council is supposed to serve and promote Columbia businesses, not negatively impact their income. This new law will send people to stores on the outer limits of the city — where 18-year-olds can legally purchase tobacco. The amount of revenue that will be lost by Columbia businesses due to this law will significantly outweigh the number of people ultimately dissuaded from smoking due to it.

Another major issue with passing Tobacco 21 is that it re-routes a significant portion of tobacco sales in the city from legal channels to illicit ones. By restricting adults from purchasing tobacco products without barring them from actually using tobacco (or providing increased resources to help them quit), the city has simply eliminated the legal manner of obtaining tobacco products — which will only lead to a higher frequency of illicit tobacco sales and exchanges.

Making it illegal to purchase, but not illegal to use tobacco products, for adults under the age of 21 doesn’t make a significant impact on the amount of citizens who use these products.

Perhaps City Council failed to consider the obvious case study of alcohol. By no means does the current drinking age of 21 actually prevent 18 to 20-year-olds (and younger) from drinking. It simply makes alcohol procurement, consumption, inebriation and aftermath more illicit and more dangerous.

Most importantly, this law is a public health decision that infringes upon an adult’s personal health decisions. It assumes responsibility for adults judged to otherwise be responsible for their choices and the resulting consequences. No adult who walks into a convenience store is doing so having freshly emerged from under a rock. Everyone knows that tobacco products have negative health benefits. It is discussed in advertisements, in health classes and even directly on the boxes of cigarettes.

Adults who smoke understand the risk that they are taking when they smoke — and that it’s their choice to make. There are other, more effective ways to reduce the amount of citizens who use tobacco products, with raising taxes on tobacco products probably being the most effective method. Barring consenting adults from making the decision to smoke is not the right way to reduce the amount of smoking in Columbia.

Following the vote, Mid-Missouri NORML Vice President Spencer Pearson organized a referendum petition in order to annul or suspend Tobacco 21. Though it did not gain the requisite number of signatures in time, Pearson is now helping organize an initiative petition. If the petition receives 2,567 valid voters’ signatures before April, then there will be a measure that citizens can vote on in the April election.

We support the efforts made by Pearson and by many others to petition for a measure that citizens can vote on in the upcoming April election. Receiving citizen input on a law that directly affects citizens is an important step that City Council should have taken months ago. These petitions are a smart step to be made toward reversing this problematic law.

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