Retail locations

The Circle K on La Cañada Drive and Duval Road is one of many stores selling tobacco and vapor products that would be affected by the county's proposed tobacco 21 ordinance. 

The Pima County Board of Supervisors continued a hearing Tuesday on a new tobacco ordinance which could raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.

The continuation not only pushes a final vote on the measure for the county to mid-September, but it also complicates a similar ordinance for the City of Tucson.

On Tuesday afternoon, Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik said he suspected the board's decision would have implications on the council's ability to act on the motion. It was on their agenda for Tuesday night, only a few hours after the board voted to continue its hearing in a 3-2 vote.

"We're not going to be able to put together all the enforcement protocols that we would have to if we were going to take it in house," Kozachik said. "We can't do it on the fly, this was tied together with the county being the enforcement mechanism. Without them being on board we're going to have to kind of step back and talk about how we do it with or without them."

Before fully supporting the bill, Kozachik had concerns about how enforcement would be carried out. It made sense while it was the county health department tasked with enforcement, but if it should fall on the Tucson Police Department, it could strain resources, Kozachik said.

If the county does eventually pass the ordinance, it would create retail licenses and increases fines and penalties on retailers, too.

Kozachik said he expected the board's decision would force the council to postpone its hearings on the city's ordinance until September as well, he said.

A second hearing with the county will be held by the board Sept. 17.

Supervisor Steve Christy has previously said he was opposed to the ordinance with concerns over penalties focusing on retailers rather than underage tobacco purchasers. During Tuesday's meeting, Christy remained opposed to the ordinance and added that retail owners and representatives need to be involved in a stakeholder meeting before the next hearing.

"I was just going along with the retailers association that stated they were willing to work with this issue to come to some kind of conclusion," Christy said. "I didn't like it from the beginning. I don't believe by raising the legal limit to 21 it's going to have one iota of effect on smoking by underage people."

Supervisor Sharon Bronson voted in favor of continuing the hearing to September, raising concerns about the penalties imposed by the ordinance.

"We're penalizing the store only, which in most instances these are large franchises, but we're not penalizing the person who is violating the law – either from the perspective of the buyer or the seller," Bronson said.

Supervisor Richard Elîas was the lone vocal supporter of the measure during the meeting.

Ginny Chadwick, the western regional director with Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, commonly called Tobacco21, spoke to the board during the hearing in support of the ordinance. She said to date there are 488 counties with tobacco 21 laws in the United States.

"It was clear that Sharon Bronson hadn't done her homework to understand what was going on with compliance checks and that they would be done through the health department, she hasn't read the national model that best practices says to put the penalty on the retailer," Chadwick said after the meeting. 

Supervisor Ally Miller also voiced opposition to the ordinance which she said would be another layer of government and questioned whether having separate state and local laws would put retailers at a disadvantage.

"What we're doing here is adding another layer of government, we're creating unintended consequences and why doesn't this group go back to the state," Miller said. "I think here at the local level, doing this, it is just creating more government and it's going to cost more money and we've already got the state and federal government who is being tasked with these enforcement efforts."

Youth groups, health and policy advocates were pushing the board to approve the measure at the meeting, but there were representatives from Quik Mart and Circle K on hand who don't support the penalties which would be imposed on store owners.

Retailers could have their permits to sell tobacco suspended – 30 days for a second offense and six months for a third – should they be caught sell to customers under 21. 

"It was really interesting to see the county supervisors really cater to the retail industry and put profits over kids," Chadwick said. 

The City Council will need to be ready to move forward without the county after the board's meeting today, Kozachik said.

"It's kind of a curve ball because until today, they had indicated that they were on board," Kozachik said. "We wouldn't have crafted an (intergovernmental agreement) and gone through all these other steps had we known that they weren't going to be partners anyway."

Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732