TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ highest court ruled Friday that cities can raise the age for buying tobacco products even though state law sets it at 18, bolstering a public health movement driven in part by concerns about teenagers’ use of e-cigarettes.
The state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision allows the city of Topeka to enforce an ordinance setting the age to buy tobacco products, e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine at 21. A company operating two local businesses, Vapebar Topeka and Puffs ‘n’ Stuff, sued just before the ordinance took effect in January 2018, and a lower-court judge blocked it.
The ruling had broader implications because 19 other Kansas cities have raised the age for buying tobacco to 21, and five counties have done so in areas outside cities.
More than 470 cities and counties in 29 states have raised the age to 21, as have 17 states, according to Tobacco 21, a national group promoting the higher age as a way to reduce smoking and e-cigarette use among young people. Also, the U.S. Senate is considering bipartisan legislation to raise the age nationally to 21.
“What people understand is that their kids are getting addicted and they have to do something,” said Dr. Rob Crane, president of Tobacco 21.
In Kansas, the state constitution gives cities “home rule” power, allowing them to set policies locally on a wide variety of issues, even if the state has laws on them. The exceptions are when a state law bars cities from acting or when a local ordinance conflicts with a state law.
The local businesses argued that by setting the age for buying tobacco products at 18, the state law implied that cities cannot go higher. They also argued that the Topeka ordinance conflicted with the state law.
But, writing for the court, Justice Caleb Stegall said raising the age for buying tobacco products “merely enlarges” on the state law, without creating a conflict. Also, he wrote, nothing in the law expressly forbids cities from acting.
Tuck Duncan, the attorney for the local businesses, said the ruling still allows another challenge on other grounds, such as a claim that the city did not adequately document the public health problems used to justify its ordinance. But he said businesses ultimately could face “a patchwork quilt” of rules — and not just on selling tobacco products.
“This is a huge barn door being opened for municipal governments to modify a whole raft of laws,” Duncan said. “What’s to say that the city of Topeka can’t have its own ordinances now, licensing physicians?”
Duncan also questioned the effectiveness of the ordinance in preventing sales of tobacco products to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.
“They’ll just go someplace else to buy it,” he said.
Still, Craig Barnes, a Shawnee County Health Department official who serves on the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition’s board, said he was “ecstatic” about the ruling. Barnes said almost all high school seniors turn 18 before graduating, and allowing them to buy tobacco products legally makes it more likely younger students will gain access to them.
“Our hope is to dramatically decrease the number of youth who ultimately get started using tobacco products at a younger age,” Barnes said. “That leads to that lifelong addiction.”
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna