City of Lawrence leaders voted to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 and to establish a local tobacco sales license and application process.
As part of its Tuesday meeting, the Lawrence City Commission voted 5-0 to pass two ordinances that raise the age to purchase tobacco, establish local licensing procedures and various new provisions regarding tobacco use. The amendments would cover traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes as well as synthetic products such as e-cigarettes or vapes.
Commissioners expressed broad support for the changes. Discussions about a local ordinance began four years ago and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she had always been supportive of the effort and was happy to see it finally moving forward.
“From there it was four long years, but I’m glad we got to this point,” Larsen said.
LiveWell Douglas County, a health coalition coordinated by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, has been advocating since 2018 for the city to raise the age of purchase of tobacco products in Lawrence to 21. Other organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the Lawrence branch of the NAACP, have also supported the effort. The federal age to purchase tobacco was raised to 21 at the end of 2019, but Kansas state law has not yet changed to reflect that. Douglas County has passed regulations to raise the age, but they only affect rural unincorporated areas of the county and not the town of Lawrence.
The order will require any tobacco retail business or self-service display, such as tobacco vending machines, to obtain a license before selling those products. To enforce the ordinance, a tobacco retailer will be subject to at least two unannounced compliance checks per year, which would be carried out by the health department. Violations of the ordinance will be assessed with the tobacco retailer and dealt with in municipal court. All proceeds from the fines will go to a tobacco prevention and education fund administered by the Department of Health.
One of the key questions in past discussions at the commission level has been how the city would enforce the higher purchase age in the absence of state regulation and what the costs would be to the city. The City Clerk’s Office typically handles other types of licenses, but the Tobacco License would instead be handled entirely by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. Licensing fees would be $260 per year for retailers and $15 per year for tobacco vending machines, with fees set to cover administration and enforcement costs.
The order drafted by city staff and approved by the commission did not include location limitations proposed by the health department and the American Heart Association. This proposal limited the proximity of tobacco retailers to youth facilities, the proximity of retailers to each other, and the total number of retailers.
The prescriptions also cover other tobacco-related changes. These include updating the definition of smoking to include vaping and other electronic cigarettes and smoking devices. The definition of smoking has also been updated to include hookah and e-hookah. These changes would clarify that vaping is subject to indoor or other smoking bans.
For the sake of the ordinance penalizing tobacco users, there was some discussion as to whether a provision prohibiting a person from smoking in any area where smoking is prohibited should remain in the ordinance. In response to questions from the commission, Assistant City Attorney Randy Larkin said the enforcement section provision allows the city to enforce smoking bans in public places. Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said the provision is rarely cited in city court, with the provision only being cited three times in the past five years.
Ultimately, the commission decided to leave the provision in the order. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said if the city were to see an increase in tickets for tobacco users, he thought it would be something the city should address.
Lawrence-Douglas County Director of Public Health Dan Partridge told the commission that the health department would be ready to launch the program Jan. 1.