Legality and Practicality: How are cities allowed to change the tobacco age?

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As the US continues to see vaping-related illness cases multiply across the nation, several states have taken steps to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teens and children.

Arkansas passed a state law that bumped the tobacco purchase age up to 21, and just this week, Missouri governor Mike Parson launched the state’s “Clear the Air” vaping awareness campaign to educate Missouri youth on the dangers of the product after signing an executive order in October. But, many city governments aren’t waiting on state policies to be enacted and instead, are taking matters into their own hands with Tobacco21 and similar initiatives.

On Tuesday night, the City of Carl Junction passed its own T21 ordinance, and Joplin could soon be doing the same after doing the same following Monday night’s council meeting. 

Joplin High School student body president Faron Haase approached the council at the meeting to vocalize the school’s support for the T21 initiative, and Mayor Gary Shaw noted at the end of the session that the council could expect to see it on the agenda soon. These two cities would join the several others Missouri that have raised the tobacco purchase age from the state law of 18 including Springfield and Kansas City.

But, despite the amount of local support cities are seeing to raise the purchase age, there’s still a huge question to be answered: Can they even do that?

The answer? Absolutely.

In 1992, Congress passed the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration Reorganization Act. The act set the first federal regulations on youth substance use and abuse and contained the Synar Amendment, which established a minimum age of legal access (MLA) of 18. 

But, the law also gave states the power to raise their age restrictions as long as they:

  • Enact and enforce laws prohibiting any manufacturer, retailer, or distributor of tobacco products from selling or distributing such products to any individual younger than age 18 
  • Conduct annual, unannounced inspections to keep track of sales compliance
  • Submit an annual plan of action to keep noncompliance below 20 percent

This dynamic is the same for city-to-state government relations. Like the federal government, the state has a list of regulations that cities must comply with to receive both state and federal funding. But, from a municipal perspective, if community leaders feel like enough isn’t being done by either level, they can pass ordinances to raise the bar when it comes to public health and keeping tobacco products out of the hands of youth.

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