Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Repercussions for small business owners, government overreach, and restricting the rights of legal adults were among the concerns voiced at a town hall meeting held Thursday night to discuss the Metropolitan Health District's proposal to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products in San Antonio from 18 to 21.
“It’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the retailer,” Anwar Tahir, president of the Association of Convenience Store Retailers, told the Rivard Report. “Why are they penalizing the City of San Antonio when there are 26 other cities in Bexar County?”
Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger and two medical doctors with the American Heart Association fielded questions submitted by the audience of about 100 that included high school students, area business owners, and representatives from organizations such as the San Antonio Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Metro Health also streamed the event via Facebook Live and accepted questions submitted online.
Bridger told the audience that only about 2 percent of current tobacco sales nationwide are sold to people aged 18-20, while “the costs associated with medical care for people addicted to nicotine are much higher than that.”
While she anticipates "a small impact on a retailer’s bottom line" and the City’s tax revenue, Bridger emphasized "a cost savings to the City and everyone who lives here because we all cover the cost of health care for people [in our community].”
But representatives from the Association of Convenience Store Retailers weren’t convinced. Irfan Butt, the group's vice president, explained that it’s more than just cigarette sales that local businesses would lose out on.
“You go in and you get a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, then you get candy, and maybe you get thirsty and you get a drink," Butt said. “I will lose out on that because an [18-year-old] adult – not a kid – isn’t coming in.”
Tahir, Butt, and many others in the audience questioned whether the City should be allowed to place limits on what legal adults can and cannot do, especially since 18-year-olds can vote and join the military.
An online commenter took the argument a step further, saying that children may change their gender before the age of 18, yet the City wants to prohibit those legal adults from buying tobacco products.
Diego Cura, a 17 year-old senior at the International School of the Americas, is in favor of Metro Health's "tobacco 21" proposal and said those against it likely “have money at stake.”
Asked how he would feel if 18-year-olds, who are legally able to change their gender, were not allowed to purchase cigarettes, he said he found it “quite funny” that anyone would try to draw a parallel.
“An act like changing your gender is such a big, emotional self-evaluation and self-decision that it is in a completely different ballpark than tobacco use,” Cura said. “Not to mention, something like changing your gender has no effect on the people around you, while tobacco can ruin not only your life, but the [lives of] people around you” through secondhand smoke.
On Dec. 6, Metro Health will submit the final proposal to City Council. There will be an additional opportunity for people to give feedback during the citizens-to-be-heard portion of the meeting. Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Dec. 14.
To gauge community support for the proposed change, Metro Health in September conducted an online survey that was distributed through neighborhood and community organization email lists. Almost 5,500 people responded, with 77.5 percent supporting raising the purchasing age.