City Council voted 8-2 Thursday to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products in San Antonio from 18 to 21, becoming the first city in Texas to impose such a restriction.

“I think today is a historic day,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “We [got] to vote on something that doesn’t just move the needle, but transforms the landscape for the health of our community.”

Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10) voted against the ordinance in part because of its potential negative impact on small business owners such as convenience store retailers. They complained that such a restriction takes decision-making out of the hands of capable adults who should have the right to make their own choices. Each introduced motions to table the vote on the tobacco ordinance –both motions failed to pass.

The ordinance will go into effect on Oct. 1, following a “soft rollout,” during which representatives from San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will work to educate retailers and the community on the ordinance and how it will be enforced. During that time violators of the ordinance will not be penalized.

Under the ordinance, under-21 youth who purchase or are found in possession of tobacco products will not be cited, but retailers found selling tobacco products to someone who is not of legal age will face citations and fines. Stores will be chosen at random to be audited for compliance by city inspectors.

Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report that she is “very grateful to the Council for having approved this public health initiative,” and that there is still a lot of work to be done.

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger speaks in favor of the Tobacco 21 ordinance to City Council.
San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger speaks before City Council in favor of the Tobacco 21 ordinance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Metro Health has also pushed the roll-out date to October in order to work with other Bexar County and surrounding municipalities to encourage them to pass their own age-restriction ordinances. One of the criticisms of the ordinance was that underage tobacco buyers could simply leave San Antonio city limits and purchase products in municipalities such as Balcones Heights, Castle Hills, or Alamo Heights.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg supported the ordinance, saying that for San Antonio, “this is a moment when people can come together to improve the health of all of our community.”

Before the vote, Council members heard nearly two hours of comments from more than 30 San Antonio residents, business owners, youth, and community leaders. The overwhelming majority of citizens expressed support for the ordinance, citing health benefits of restricting access to tobacco and concerns about the impact secondhand smoke has on asthma. Citizens speaking against the ordinance expressed worry that business owners might be required to cut down on the number of employees due to decreased tobacco sales.

San Antonio joins more than 280 cities and counties in 18 states in raising the purchasing age for tobacco products to 21.

Metro Health advocated adopting the policy, known as Tobacco 21, Bridger said, because research indicates that young people are more likely to become addicted to tobacco products substances because their brains are not fully developed.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

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