Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) and representatives from the Association of Convenience Store Retailers and the Texas Food and Fuel Association gathered in front of City Hall on Wednesday to express their concern over a proposal to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. City Council is set to vote on the matter Thursday.

A vote was postponed in December because some Council members, including Brockhouse, expressed concern about how individuals and businesses might be impacted by the ordinance and its enforcement. Since then, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District has revised the proposal to eliminate penalties against youth who purchase or are found in possession of tobacco products, instead focusing on holding retailers responsible if they are found selling tobacco products to someone who is not of legal age.

Brockhouse criticized the changes that shifted possible sanctions onto sellers of tobacco products, saying, “if you believe in the ordinance, why are you watering it down to a toothless document that punishes small business owners?”

Metro Health is set to present the revised ordinance to City Council on Thursday, and feedback from Council members indicate the measure likely will be approved.

Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report that when the earlier vote on the ordinance was postponed, she consulted with Council members and learned that the majority of them “felt like we didn’t need another reason for some sort of enforcement entity to interact with our youth in a negative fashion.”

“The approach [to not punish youth in possession of tobacco] has been taken in a number of other large cities,” where the focus is on regulation and enforcement of tobacco sales, Bridger said.

Metro Health is pushing for the policy, known as Tobacco 21, Bridger said, because research indicates that people are more likely to become addicted to substances if they begin using them before their brain is fully developed.

But Paul Hardin, the president of the Texas Food and Fuel Association, said outside City Hall that elected officials had the opportunity to pass statewide legislation to change the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, but did not.

“The State of Texas and all of the elected officials said that this is not a good idea. We do not need to be in the business of regulating adulthood,” Hardin said. “And now, a few [City Council members] in San Antonio decided that they know better than the state of Texas, and it’s just not right on any level. It will hurt competition, and will drive people to a gray market, a black market, and across the street.”

If passed, the tobacco ordinance would regulate convenience stores within the City of San Antonio, but 26 other cities within Bexar County would not fall under the jurisdiction of the ordinance.

“If I do a million dollars in sales a year as a small business owner, 4 percent means $40,000,”  said Anwar Tahir, president of the Association for Convenience Store Retailers, referring to the percentage of business he predicts he will lose under the ordinance.

Tahir also said that big retailers like H-E-B and Walmart aren’t relying on cigarettes to make money – so the ordinance unfairly targets small businesses.

Most City Council members already have determined how they will vote come Thursday. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) told the Rivard Report that she will vote in favor of the ordinance. Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said that she is “supportive of the age increase, but [is] still waiting to hear how [the City] can assist small business owners who might be impacted.”

Councilmen John Courage (D9) and Roberto Trevino (D1) said they support the ordinance. “I believe it is a genuine and a serious public health issue,” Courage said. “We are trying to regulate the sale of an addictive drug to young people, and I consider that an obligation.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said in a press release that while “tackling the consumption of tobacco products by our youth is important,” that he is against the proposal because he “[does] not agree with making one city in the entire state of Texas the sole place where legal adults are not able to exercise their legal ability to purchase a tobacco product.”

Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) said he is going to vote yes, but has concerns that the ordinance creates an “unlevel playing field among competition in the retail community.”

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) declined to comment on how she would vote, and a representative from her office told the Rivard Report that she is working to get feedback from members of her community before making a decision.

A representative for Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) stated that he will be abstaining from the tobacco ordinance vote.

If Council votes to raise the age, Metro Health would recommend a three-month “soft launch” before the law would go fully into effect. During that time “there would be no consequences, just reminders,” as businesses and consumers adjust to the policy change. If passed, it would legally go into effect in June.

“Kids hear pro-tobacco messages over and over, and they see billboards, magazine ads, internet ads, and commercials. They are bombarded with information that is pro tobacco,” Bridger said. “We are stepping in to help counter some of that pro-tobacco advertising, and I think is a beneficial thing.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.