Palo Alto Looks to Raise Age for Tobacco Sales

Palo Alto looks to raise age for tobacco sales


By:  Gennady Sheyner

PALTO ALTO, Calif. – Seeking to make Palo Alto a regional leader in a crusade against cigarette smoke, city officials are preparing to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 and to ban smoking in local apartment buildings and condominium complexes.

The two proposals would both build up the city’s recent sequence of smoking bans, which include prohibitions on smoking at local parks, outdoor dining areas, main downtown strips and open-space preserve. The City Council’s Policy and Services Committee unanimously agreed on Tuesday night that both are worth pursuing, sending their stamps of approval to the full council.

The idea of banning smoking at multi-family complexes has been floating through City Hall for more than a year, with the committee holding several meetings on the topic in 2015. On Tuesday, the committee voted to approve an ordinance that would establish the ban and that would provide allowances to property owners to install designated outdoor areas for smoking.

The idea is far from radical, given that bans on smoking in multi-tenant housing units are already in place in Belmont, Walnut Creek, Richmond, San Rafael and unincorporated San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The raising of the minimum buying age would, by contrast, put the city in the lead. While Santa Clara County adopted 21 as the legal buying age last year (the new age limit went into effect in January), it is so far an outlier among public agencies, said Terrence Howzell, principal attorney with the City Attorney’s Office.

Berkeley has recently adopted a similar age restriction, effective 2017. And while a state bill to raise the smoking age to 21 is currently moving through the Assembly, the buying age remains 18 almost everywhere.

Palo Alto would join Santa Clara County as the exception if the City Council approves the committee’s unanimous recommendation, as it is expected to do. In addition to the four council members who approved the change Tuesday night, Mayor Pat Burt (who chaired the committee last year) indicated last year that he would support a higher age limit (at that time, a proposal to support legislative efforts that would raise the age limit fizzled in the committee by a 2-2 vote).

The plan to raise the age limit ended up in front of the committee Tuesday as part of a separate proposal to establish a licensing program for tobacco retailers. Since late last year, Palo Alto officials have been corresponding with Santa Clara County about the county administering and enforcing the city’s new licensing program.

On Tuesday night, Public Works staff said that the county has indicated that it is willing to administer Palo Alto’s new program, which would apply to the city’s roughly 30 tobacco retailers. The city, however, would have to adopt the county’s tobacco-licensing ordinance, which includes a minimum age of 21 for tobacco sales, a complete ban on sales of flavored tobacco and a prohibition on new retailers within 1,000 feet of a school, 5,000 feet of each other, or inside a pharmacy. After a brief discussion, the committee agreed that the move is worth pursuing.

Councilman Marc Berman, who last year provided one of the two dissenting votes (Cory Wolbach joined him in dissent), once again voiced some skepticism about the new age requirement. If a 19-year-old is old enough make a decision to go off to war, Berman said, why shouldn’t he be considered mature enough to make a decision about buying cigarettes?

“If smoking is bad, and smoking is bad for everybody, and you’re an adult at 18, why don’t we ban smoking for everybody?” Berman asked. “Why are we deciding to just ban smoking for people who are just 18, 19 and 20? Why are we treating people who are 18, 19 and 20 differently from people who are 21, 22 and 23 when it comes to smoking?”

Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a retired nurse and former county supervisor, countered that smoking is “incredibly addictive” and argued in favor of raising the age for tobacco sales.

“It would be a public health service if you can in some way keep kids in their teens from smoking until they’re 21. If you can stop a couple of people from becoming addicted, you’ve done some good for your community,” Kniss said.

The county, which took action in June 2015 to raise the age for tobacco sales, concluded that the younger the person is when he or she first tries tobacco, the more likely they are to get addicted. In a letter to the city last year, the county’s Public Health Director Sara Cody wrote that an estimated 90 percent of tobacco users start before the age of 21 and about 80 percent try it before they are 18. About 75 percent of teen smokers continue into their adult years, Cody noted. She cited a report by the Institute of Medicine predicting that raising the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21 will, over time, reduce the smoking rate by about 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent.

“By making it harder for teens and young adults ages 18-21 to get access to tobacco, we are preventing more lifetime smokers, thereby reducing future health care costs and the leading preventable cause of death,” Cody wrote.

The committee didn’t need much swaying. Councilman Greg Scharff called the county’s approach a “great program” and said he definitely wants to see Palo Alto move forward on it.

Committee Chair Tom DuBois, who also supported raising the smoking age last year, concurred. Berman, despite initial misgivings, ultimately voted along with his colleagues.

There was even less debate about the proposal to ban smoking from local multi-family housing complexes. Last year, the committee held several public hearings on the proposed ban and conducted a survey, which showed a vast majority of respondents supporting the ban.

Mary Dimit, who lives in a downtown condominium, addressed the committee Tuesday and urged members to move ahead with the change, which she said will allow property owners to include the smoking ban in building leases. Numerous residents in her condominium complex have requested smoking restrictions over the past five years, she said. The building’s property manager has declined to do so because there would be no way to enforce the ban, Dimit said. By enacting the new law, the city would create the enforcement mechanism that building owners can use to create these restrictions.

“There’s just a few people who smoke and most of us don’t want to infringe on their right to smoke,” Dimit told the committee. “But it does bother us so, as much as possible, if we see someone smoking or smoke coming in, we close all our windows.

“The problem is it happens at night, when we’ve already gone to bed or when we’re in the front room and it goes into the back room, where the children are. The smoke is in there and once it’s in there, once you close up, it can’t go anywhere.”

The committee swiftly approved the ban. Berman, who like Dimit lives in a multi-unit building in downtown, cited own experiences with racing from one room to another to close windows when he smells someone smoking.

“You can’t get there fast enough,” Berman said. “Hopefully, this will provide some relief to those of us who face this situation.”


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