San Antonio Raises Tobacco Purchase Age to 21

Health department official outlines transition steps

SAN ANTONIO – After seven “stakeholder” meetings, including two face-to-face gatherings with retailers, an official with San Antonio’s department of health said the community was well informed of the city’s Oct. 1 transition to increasing the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The City Council, in a 9-2 vote in January, increased the minimum purchase age despite concerns from area retailers, according to KSAT. The news outlet reported on a protest that retailers led at the time lawmakers were considering the proposal.

Mario Martinez, assistant director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said city studies of other municipalities undergoing similar changes show that retailers could see a 2% to 4% drop in sales. Despite that projection, he said the city is “focused on public health.”

An official with the state c-store association said he was disappointed with the city’s move, which created what he called “an island in the middle of the state.” The rest of Texas continues to allow customers who are 18 to buy tobacco products, a disparity that has both social and economic consequences, said Paul Hardin, president and CEO of the Texas Food and Fuel Association, Austin, Texas.

“The city has immediately punished those retailers that have supported the city for many years, and that have been an integral part of the community,” Hardin told CSP Daily News. “They are now at an economic disadvantage for the 18- to 20-year-old shoppers, who will simply go to the store across the city limits and buy from a competitor.”

Retailers attending subsequent stakeholder meetings held after January were less emphatic than Hardin, Martinez said. Martinez described those retailers as more concerned about properly informing customers of the new minimum-age requirement. “There was not anything negative [expressed at the meetings], except for making customers aware of the ordinance,” he said.

To that end, the city developed posters to educate store staff, mimicking the design of age-restricted posters distributed from the state of Texas, Martinez said. The decision was to help make the new posters recognizable to employees.

The penalty for the sale of tobacco products to customers under 21 in San Antonio is now $500, Martinez said. That fine also applies to employers who cannot show the required employee notices of the new law. Inspections will begin in January 2019 and will include sending “decoy” individuals into stores who are ages 18-20 who will try to buy tobacco products.

Despite the potential loss of retail sales, Martinez said the city would receive “long-term health benefits and savings on health costs.”

Bringing up the issue of rights of 18-year-old citizens, Hardin said that at 18, “you are able to purchase a home, you can serve in the military, you can adopt a child, but you can no longer buy tobacco at that age in the city limits of San Antonio.”

In addition to lost tobacco sales, retailers will also lose associated fuel, soda and snack sales to stores outside San Antonio, a consequence that will also cut into the city’s tax revenue, Hardin said.

The association, along with other organizations, will attempt to rescind the city ordinance in the upcoming legislative session, Hardin said.

The “Tobacco 21” movement has been on a steady course. In July, Massachusetts became the sixth state to raise the age from the federal minimum of 18 years old, following California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon, as well as Washington, D.C., and at least 340 cities and counties, including New York City, Chicago, San Antonio, Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.

Photograph by CSP staff


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