The San Antonio City Council will vote Thursday on whether or not to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.
San Antonio would be the first city in Texas to pass such an ordinance. Convenience store operators say the move will eat into their bottom line. City health officials believe it could help curb smoking habits at an early age.
Voting on the ordinance has already been pushed back twice and at least one councilmember is asking for it to be pushed back again.
If passed, the sales restrictions would start Aug. 1 and the fine for selling tobacco to anyone under the age of 21 would be up to $500 – the same amount used at the state level for selling tobacco to someone under 18.
Metro Health director Dr. Colleen Bridger said one of the goals of the ordinance is to discourage new smoking habits, particularly to those under 21 years old.
“That’s why we want to make sure that people whose brains are still developing are not exposed to this addictive substance because that trains the brain to become addicted not just to nicotine, but to any addictive substance,” she said.
Convenience store retailers like Anwar Tahir said the ordinance unfairly targets small businesses. He said about 3 to 4 percent of his sales are tobacco products to people between ages 18 and 20.
“If I do a million dollars in sales a year … 4 percent means $40,000,” he said. “That means I’m unable to pay my mortgage; I’m unable to my bills because my expenses are still there,” he said.
But he said the hit might not be as big to large retailers like H-E-B.
District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse is one of at least two council members who oppose the ordinance. Alongside a handful of retailers in front of city hall on Wednesday, Brockhouse said the ordinance was a solution in search of a problem.
“This is not an item that matters most right now. We’ve watered it down so far that the council is desperate to pass anything to say they did it,” he said.
The ordinance did include provisions that would fine persons between ages 18-20 in possession of tobacco products but concerns from council members like Shirley Gonzalez of District 5 asked for that to be removed.
Bridger said Tobacco 21 would still work without fining individual consumers.
“We went back and we looked and what we found was that the vast majority of big cities that implemented Tobacco 21 do not have youth enforcement component for that very specific social justice issue,” she said, “so we know that without youth enforcement it’s still a very effective public health policy.”
The ordinance would only affect stores in San Antonio, allowing people under 21 to simply cross a street to the many cities within Bexar County to purchase tobacco products.
Tahir said that would only drive customers away from his San Antonio-based store.
“The person is not just coming (here) to buy a soda,” he said. “… If he could buy a cigar or cigarette across the street, of course he’s (going) to buy gas there. … He’s not going to come to me.”
Bridger said she has met with representatives from several Bexar County suburbs and many have asked for more information.
“As soon as we can get San Antonio on board, leading by example ... I think it’s a much more compelling conversation we can have with them,” she said.