A campaign that has successfully changed laws to limit the sale and purchase of nicotine products in 10 Johnson County cities will be considered on Thursday for unincorporated parts of the county. If it is approved, it will raise the legal age to buy nicotine products to 21.
The push to change city ordinances is part of a nationwide campaign called Tobacco 21 that has been enacted in 224 jurisdictions so far, including 21 in the Kansas City metro area. The Johnson County Commission is set to discuss it at its next meeting.
The proposal has sometimes been controversial. Overland Park council members, for instance, had an extended debate but eventually approved it about a year ago, despite some push-back from a smokeless tobacco company.
Tobacco is in the name of the campaign, but the measure the commission will discuss is not limited to tobacco products. The language is vague enough to cover the fast-evolving world of vaping and liquid nicotine delivery systems designed to fit into faux pens, inhalers and even the drawstrings of a hoodie, said Scott Hall, vice president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Hall said the idea is to make it harder for young adults to fall into nicotine addiction before they enter the world of work. Although employers can push for smoking cessation programs to save on health care costs, most people start smoking in their teens, according to studies. During the three-year window from ages 18 to 21, nicotine bought legally often finds its way into the hands of younger kids as they, too, start smoking, he said.
Proponents of the measure cite studies that estimate that if the age limit is raised, it will reduce smoking by 25 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds and by 15 percent among 18- to 20-year-olds.
If the measure is approved by the commission, it will affect only unincorporated areas of the county. But approval is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Two commissioners expressed skepticism in their questions during Hall’s April 13 presentation.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft raised several issues, including the fact that 18-year-olds can join the armed forces.
“I’m struggling a little bit with this, that you can be a law enforcement officer or a member of our military but you can’t buy these products for that three-year window,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Klika, a former member of the Blue Valley Board of Education, also questioned the impact of raising the age.
“As a past school board member the biggest challenge we had was dealing with alcoholism. We can’t seem to control that so how the heck are we going to control this?” Klika asked.
“All it is, we’re trying to wave a flag. I’m not one for throwing in added regulations that we can’t even manage,” he continued.
But Hall said studies show that in jurisdictions where the age was raised, nicotine use has decreased. In other parts of the country, the initiative has been successful enough that lawmakers are considering making it a statewide law, he said.
“I totally sympathize with your point,” he said.
“We will never be able to keep tobacco and nicotine completely out of the hands of kids in high school. It’s probably impossible. But if I told you we could lessen it by a quarter — and that’s what I am telling you this policy has done in other communities — that to me seems like it’s worth taking that flag and waving it.”