As of Jan. 1, you’ll have to be 21 years old to buy tobacco in 17 states and nearly 500 cities and counties. Utah joins the group in 2021.

They all apparently realize something that three of our five Pima County supervisors don’t: Tobacco kills people. About 1,300 every day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Never mind the other realities, like the 41,000 non-smokers who die every year from exposure to tobacco smoke; the millions of teenage smokers handed addiction and an early death sentence; and the billions of dollars in medical bills tied to smoking. (Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that people below poverty level and those with less education smoke at far higher rates than everybody else.)

No, the supervisors didn’t want to think about all of that when they threw out bogus and often confounding reasons to object to raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 at Tuesday’s meeting.

 Supervisors Steve Christy, Sharon Bronson and Ally Miller voted down the ordinance; Chairman Richard Elias and Supervisor Ramon Valadez supported it.

THE ARGUMENTS

The arguments of the majority are easily dispatched. Among them, they said:

Let the state make the call, not the county. But often it’s local jurisdictions such as counties and cities that push states into taking action. Pima County banned texting while driving long before the state did, for example. When it comes to smoking, three Arizona cities have adopted what is called the Tobacco 21 ordinance: Flagstaff, Douglas and Cottonwood. Flagstaff City Council members said they were waiting on the county and state to act but realized it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, so they did.

The ordinance would punish retailers but not those who buy the cigarettes or the clerks who sell them, the supervisors said. A retailer is responsible for hiring employees who will do their job. Is that too much to ask? And how hard is it to card somebody? They do it with liquor, why would this be any tougher? We should also note that it’s illegal for a minor to possess “tobacco or smoking equipment” in Arizona — another fact lost on the supervisors. The retailer does not bear the entire burden.

The ordinance it too punishing, they insist. And suspending a license to sell tobacco after several infractions could put somebody out of business. Good, on a couple of levels. First, if you can’t follow the law you shouldn’t be in business. Second, places that sell cigarettes also sell thousands of other products. Do you really believe a brief suspension of cigarette sales would force them to close their doors? Baloney. It’ll get their attention.

People have to take responsibility for their actions. Agreed. But addiction is a ruthless opponent, and teenagers don’t have a prayer against it. By the way, have you ever met a smoker who wouldn’t walk away from cigarettes if they could? That’s addiction talking.

Carlos Estrada, regional operations director for Circle K, said during public comment Tuesday that he fears his Pima County stores would lose sales to other markets if the age is raised. Let’s have Flagstaff council member Austin Aslan handle that one: “We should not be raising money off of the tarred innards of our youth’s lungs,” he said as they debated the issue and sales tax receipts in June. Neither should business be worrying about the bottom line when it comes to trafficking in cancer. Estrada wasn’t alone in presenting that pathetic argument; other food industry suits shared similar concerns, insisting a “state solution” would even the playing field for retailers. Most of the room was concerned about kids and addiction; Estrada just wanted to talk money. Not to mention that smart smokers are already buying their cigarettes cheaper on reservations.

Bronson made the strange argument that since 18 year olds can join the military and vote, they should be able to smoke, too. I guess this means she’d also favor lowering the drinking age to 18. If Bronson wants to talk about maturity, let’s consider the differences between an 18 year old and a 21 year old. It’s immense. This ordinance gives teenagers a slightly better chance against addiction and the monstrous tobacco industry.

A SLOW DEATH

By the time the supervisors voted on the ordinance Tuesday, it had already been gutted to the point that even anti-smoking advocates had turned their backs on it. It had no teeth.

Still, we had to sit through our supervisors spinning nonsense and dancing around the real issue: Smoking kills people. We should take every step, regardless of how small, to stop it.

The same arguments the supervisors embraced and spouted before striking down the ordinance have been rolled out in countless meetings across the country. The only difference is that hundreds of elected leaders saw them for what they are and rejected them. On Tuesday, a majority of ours ate it up.

Christy, Bronson and Miller said they voted against the ordinance because they want an even playing field. But that’s exactly what the ordinance was attempting to do — give young people a little more breathing room before big tobacco descended on them. Instead, the tobacco industry — and those who sell death by the carton — won the day.

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