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'Tobacco 21' gets first-round approval by St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Bills sponsored by Ald. Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward, would boost the age to purchase tobacco products in the city to 21
Drongowski | Flickr
Bills sponsored by Ald. Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward, would boost the age to purchase tobacco products in the city to 21

Updated with first-round board approval Nov. 10 - Measures boosting the age to buy tobacco products in the city of St. Louis sailed out of the Health and Human Services committee on Thursday (Nov. 3).

The bills, sponsored by Alderman Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward, would bring the city in line with St. Louis County by making it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy tobacco products. The new requirement applies to both traditional tobacco products like cigarettes, and newer ones like electronic cigarettes.

Flowers says the age increase would help to break the social circle of access that enables underage people to smoke.

“It’s easier for someone at 16, 17 to get someone that’s 18 or 19 to buy them a cigarette whereas we think if they’re 21, the circle isn’t as easy,” said Flowers

Members of the board shared their personal experiences with smoking and smoking-related cancers in support. But some said the ordinance was just feel-good legislation.

Alderman Marlene E. Davis, D-19th Ward, said, though she would probably vote for the bills, she questioned their efficacy.

“We know that cancer is prevalent, especially lung cancer, but at the end of the day, this will not prevent one case,” said Davis.

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, said that while he supports efforts to reduce smoking, the bills insult 18 year olds who are legal adults.

“I don’t think that raising the age is the appropriate answer. If we’re going to – why don’t we raise the age to vote, why don’t we raise the age to serve in military service? You know if we’re going to treat kids like morons, they’re going to turn out to be morons,” said Cohn.

Alderman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, says the limitations are a “great trade” if they are able to save lives.

“It’s inconvenient and they may have to send their friend to get it or whatever, but whatever inconvenience I can do, there are some things we should make inconvenient,” said Tyus.

St. Louis County already voted to raise the age for tobacco to 21 in September.

Karen Englert, the government relations director for the American Heart Association, is leading the so-called "Tobacco 21" effort in Missouri. Boosting the purchasing age from 18 to 21 won't stop teenagers from getting tobacco products, she said, but it makes it a lot harder.

"We eliminate the social source," she said. "It's pretty rare that you'll see a 21 year old spending a lot of time with a 13 year old."

AJ Moll, the executive director of Smoke Free Missouri, called "Tobacco 21" a solution in search of a problem. Raising the purchasing age on vapor products, he said, makes it that much harder for people who started smoking young to quit.

"Vapor products are shown to help people quit smoking," he said. "Youths aren’t initiating with them, there’s no gateway, and the majority of people that did experiment underage don’t even use nicotine in the products."

Moll's group made the same argument in St. Louis County, where the measure passed in September. He said he expects approval in the city as well.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.