Before San Antonio officially raises the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 on Oct. 1, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will host two more public stakeholder meetings to collect input on how to implement the “Tobacco 21” ordinance.

The first of three meetings took place at the Central Library on Thursday evening, where Metro Health employees reviewed the ordinance, the potential positive health impact it will have on the city, and discussed various marketing materials and educational information that will be provided to retailers.

When the controversial ordinance came before City Council in January, more than 30 people showed up to speak about the issue. Some said it could negatively impact small business owners in San Antonio. Only one person attended the meeting on Thursday, a pediatric pulmonologist who was looking to gather more information.

The timing of the meeting – just before Good Friday, Easter, and the NCAA Men’s Final Four this weekend – could have contributed to the low turnout.

The next two meetings will take place on Wednesday, April 11, at the Central Library at 600 Soledad; the first from 10-11:30 a.m., and the second from 6-7:30 p.m.

“The hope is that we hear feedback from a cross-section of our community, including tobacco retailers, as we plan for implementation,” Mario Martinez, program manager with Metro Health told the Rivard Report.  If parents, tobacco retailers, and young adults are engaged in the methods that will be used to educate the public, Martinez said, implementation will go more smoothly.

“We want to be able to work with some retailers to ensure that the information and educational material we created is what the retailers want,” and that it’s effective once in place, Martinez said.

City Council approved Tobacco 21 with an 8-2 vote, making San Antonio the first city in Texas to impose such a restriction. The proposal received heavy opposition from convenience store retailers and small businesses throughout the community who said raising the smoking age will result in a meaningful loss in revenue.  

Metro Health leadership suggested that retailers start offering more diverse products in order to attract additional business and make up for the loss in sales. Ultimately, the Council members that voted in favor of the ordinance saw the public health benefit in trying to prevent people from starting smoking, which is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.

Increasing the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 reduces the risk that youth in San Antonio will experiment with and become addicted to tobacco products, according to advocates, as 95 percent of adult smokers starting before age 21.

One avenue for retailers to increase revenue is to become a vendor for the Women Infant Child (WIC) supplemental nutrition program, said Maria Martinez, activities coordinator with Metro Health.

Currently there are no “mom and pop” grocery stores in San Antonio that are WIC vendors. This could boost sales for retailers while increasing access to healthier food in areas where there are less grocery stores.

To become a WIC vendor, stores must keep a certain amount of each type of food that are approved for WIC users such as cereal, fresh fruit and vegetables, juice, milk, baby formula, and other fresh foods. The WIC requirements are strict, and some say onerous, considering some vendors lacK the space, Maria said, but the opportunity to increase sales from the program remains.

Metro Health staff also discussed the healthy corner store initiative, which aims to connect stores with healthy food products.

Roseanna Garza

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