The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District presented its final proposal to City Council on Tuesday, hoping to garner support for raising the age to purchase tobacco products in Bexar County from 18 to 21. After nearly two hours of discussion, Mayor Ron Nirenberg postponed the vote from Dec. 14 to Jan. 11, 2018.

“We just want to make sure that everyone on Council understands what they are voting on,” Nirenberg said in a conversation with the Rivard Report. “The critical component that many people were still confused about is the enforcement mechanism. Once that is locked down, we are ready to move this to a vote.”

Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger said the proposed revisions would mirror current state laws regarding tobacco use, but would change the age restrictions to 21. For those youth who violate the ordinance, Bridger recommends repercussions centered around education and smoking cessation.

She compared the trajectory for someone who violates the ordinance to that of a speeding ticket, wheres violators are given the opportunity to complete a defensive driving course to get the citation removed from their record.

“It’s the same case here – if they do the education component the ticket would be removed,” Bridger said. “This is not to criminalize tobacco possession.”

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger explains the Tobacco 21 proposal to city council.
San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger explains the Tobacco 21 proposal to City Council. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In Texas, 28,000 people die each year from health complications related to tobacco use, Bridger said, and the rate of smoking for high school students in Bexar County is above the national average.

While all Council members agreed that smoking is detrimental to the health of individuals and the community, some Council members paused when it came to how the ordinance would be enforced and whether it would have adverse effects on specific communities, particularly low-income groups and small businesses. At a town hall meeting in November, several convenience store owners had lamented the effects the new ordinance would have on their businesses’ bottom line.

Store Owner Amandeep Sandhu holds a sign protesting the Tobacco 21 Ordinance in front of city council.
Store owner Amandeep Sandhu holds up a sign protesting the Tobacco 21 ordinance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) expressed concern that the ordinance would disproportionately impact people in communities like hers, where she said people have a “higher propensity to have law enforcement come after them for one reason or another.” For example, youth standing outside a store smoking could be targeted for this violation and ticketed as a result, she said.

Bridger, support by James Flavin, assistant chief with the San Antonio Police Department, explained that citing people for smoking has never and will not be a focus for local police officers. So far in 2017, there have only been 31 citations for underage smoking issued in Bexar County, she said.

Police officers would not question the age of people smoking in public, Flavin said, responding to Gonzales. “The 31 citations – those were chance encounters,” where the person was stopped for another violation and received an additional charge for underage tobacco product possession.

SAPD has always had the authority to issue citations for underage smoking, Flavin explained, but that would “continue to not be a priority.”

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said that his buy-in for the program is “contingent upon [being ensured that this] is a health and education effort and not a law enforcement effort,” expressing concern that SAPD would unfairly target retailers. This practice had been taking place in his district, he said, and appeared to be more prevalent among certain ethnic populations.

Metro Health sanitarians, who investigate food-borne illness outbreaks and smoking ordinance violations, among other issues, would be the front line in enforcing the new ordinance, Bridger said. They would ensure that stores comply with the law, which would include posting new age limit information and potential repercussions, and monitoring sales to underage individuals.

City Council B Session.
City Council discusses the Tobacco 21 ordinance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1), Cruz Shaw (D2), Rey Saldaña (D4), John Courage (D9), and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) spoke openly in support of the ordinance.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he opposed the ordinance, expressing concern about classifying someone as an adult in one instance and not another. Some may view San Antonio in a negative light due to the new ordinance, he added.

“What do we do about kids coming into town from out of town with their cigarettes?” he asked. “If we are concerned about protecting our youth this should be an issue for the State Legislature. This is not a San Antonio issue.”

Bridger told the Rivard Report that she is not deterred by the vote being rescheduled to Jan. 11 as it allows more time to “figure out where [they can] compromise” and get to a point where Council members are comfortable with the ordinance’s language and enforcement policy.

“I am excited about the opportunity to work toward [compromise] rather than having enough votes to pass it,” Bridger said. “It’s not going to pass next week, but it’s going to pass.”

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