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

Starting Monday, smokers under the age of 21 will have to leave San Antonio’s city limits to legally purchase tobacco products.

On Oct. 1, San Antonio will become the first Texas city to allow the sale of tobacco products only to those 21 and older. Known as Tobacco 21, the ordinance raising the purchase age from 18 passed in January by City Council vote and includes restrictions on all nicotine delivery systems, including e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

As they get used to the new law, retailers will have a three-month grace period during which they will not be fined for selling tobacco products to minors. Beginning Jan. 1, 2019, any retailer or merchant who violates the ordinance faces a maximum fine of $500.

Under the new law, tobacco sellers must display signage provided by the City indicating the legal age of sale, alongside state signage, and provide updated training to employees. They also must continue to check customers’ identification if they look younger than 27.

When the Rivard Report visited a family-owned downtown gas station, manager Becky Garza said employees have been warning out-of-town visitors about the pending city-wide change so they can plan ahead for future trips.

“Because of our location, we get people from Dallas, Houston, and Austin who stop by our store when they come to town to party,” Garza said. “The change is going to apply to them, but it doesn’t apply to them in their hometown.”

Garza said she wasn’t aware of the ordinance before it was passed in a 9-2 City Council vote in January, despite the City’s Metropolitan Health District hosting community feedback sessions aimed at addressing concerns of the business community.

“When I found out about it, it was unexpected,” Garza said

Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger said inspectors from her department have visited more than 1,100 tobacco retailers leading up to the Oct. 1 rollout. The department also hosted seven meetings to answer questions about the ordinance and contacted businesses via phone, email, carrier mail, and social media.

Arianna Gonzales, an attendant at a Valero gas station just outside of Castle Hills on the city’s North Side, said store employees were unaware of the ordinance until the City signage arrived at the store.

“I don’t doubt that something was said to someone, but it wasn’t [to] me,” Gonzales said.

Both Garza and Gonzales said that given the customer base at their locations, they don’t anticipate much of a financial loss come Oct. 1.

“We stopped selling flavored [cigars] a few months ago, and since then, most of the people we card are 21,” Garza said, noting that the business loses more income from street construction occurring in front of the store.

Gonzales said people have noticed the bright yellow signs the store has posted informing customers about the age change and asked her about it.

“Either no one cares or they say, ‘That’s good. We don’t want kids smoking,’” Gonzales said.

The City moved to raise the purchase age because tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, and people who use nicotine before the age of 21 are more likely to become addicted, Bridger said.

While the city is the first in Texas to make the change, Bridger said, “San Antonio isn’t some aberration” when it comes to the ordinance. Six states – California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine – have raised the tobacco purchase age to 21, along with at least 350 cities and municipalities, she said.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reports that the financial burden tied to smoking, including direct medical expenses, loss of workplace activity, and premature deaths totals more than $20 billion each year.

A statewide advocacy group is working on legislation that would apply the Tobacco 21 ordinance across the state.

“Immediately we will see a decline in smoking among high schoolers, then a decrease in adults who smoke, [followed by] a decrease in the rates of heart disease, lung and breast cancer, exacerbated symptoms of diabetes, and we will have a healthier population as a result,” Bridger said.

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