A sign at Molina's San Antonio Country Store indicates that tobacco products cannot be sold to a person under twenty-one years old.
A sign at a downtown gas station indicates that tobacco products cannot legally be sold to any person under 21. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Friday marks six months since the City of San Antonio raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 in an effort to prevent use of tobacco by youth.

Starting in March, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health Department will begin sending decoy shoppers between ages 18 and 21 into shops selling tobacco products to see if retailers are complying with the law.

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 of $500.

“The implementation plan was such that we could start fining [retailers] for violating the ordinance on January 1, but the rollout has been remarkably smooth,” said Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger.

In addition to actual sales to those under 21, retailers can be fined for not having the correct signs posted, and not educating employees about the ordinance; so far no citations have been issued, she said.

San Antonio is the first city in Texas to restrict the sale of tobacco products to those 21 and older, joining a national movement called “Tobacco 21.” Despite pushback from business owners and the Association of Convenience Store Retailers, an 8-2 City Council vote enacted the ordinance on Jan. 11, 2018.

Over 28 percent of the nation’s population is covered by Tobacco 21 policy. Six states – California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine – have raised the purchase age to 21, along with 430 localities.

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 Leon Valley, Balcones Heights, Castle Hills, or Alamo Heights.

At a convenience store on Austin Highway in Alamo Heights, where 18- to 20-year-olds can legally purchase tobacco products, cashier Victor Andujo told the Rivard Report he has noticed an increase in the number of young adult customers purchasing tobacco products.

“Before the [Tobacco 21 ordinance], for every four customers that came into the store two would be kids, and now three of them will be kids,” Andujo said. “It is a noticeable difference. Before this law you would barely see any kids between the ages of 18 and 19 coming in to get anything at all.”

Metro Health has been working with surrounding municipalities to promote the policy’s economic and public health benefits, and encourage them to pass their own age-restriction ordinances, Bridger said. On Nov. 6, Leon Valley became the second Texas city to adopt the policy.

“We worked with Leon Valley to help them get this through, and talked to a couple of other communities who are watching closely to see what the state will do,” she said.

Legislators in Texas will once again debate the idea of raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products during the 86th legislative session. Rep. John Zerwas (R-Katy) introduced House Bill 749, which aims to change the minimum purchase age to 21 years old, while adding e-cigarettes to a number of sections of the law.

A similar bill was debated in 2017, but failed to gain enough support for passage, and ultimately met the same defeat as bills introduced to the Texas Legislature in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015.

“If a statewide Tobacco 21 doesn’t pass, I think we will go back and visit with those communities again to see if they are interested in going for it just for their municipality,” Bridger said. “This is a way to improve the health of the community, and we will be able to see the [policy’s] effectiveness over time as we see a decrease in youth smoking.”

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