Palo Alto looks to raise age for tobacco sales

City prepares to follow Santa Clara County in raising minimum age to 21

Seeking to make Palo Alto a regional leader in a crusade against cigarette smoke, city officials are preparing to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 and to ban smoking in local apartment buildings and condominium complexes.

The two proposals would both build up the city's recent sequence of smoking bans, which include prohibitions on smoking at local parks, outdoor dining areas, main downtown strips and open-space preserve. The City Council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously agreed on Tuesday night that both are worth pursuing, sending their stamps of approval to the full council.

The idea of banning smoking at multi-family complexes has been floating through City Hall for more than a year, with the committee holding several meetings on the topic in 2015. On Tuesday, the committee voted to approve an ordinance that would establish the ban and that would provide allowances to property owners to install designated outdoor areas for smoking.

The idea is far from radical, given that bans on smoking in multi-tenant housing units are already in place in Belmont, Walnut Creek, Richmond, San Rafael and unincorporated San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The raising of the minimum buying age would, by contrast, put the city in the lead. While Santa Clara County adopted 21 as the legal buying age last year (the new age limit went into effect in January), it is so far an outlier among public agencies, said Terrence Howzell, principal attorney with the City Attorney's Office.

Berkeley has recently adopted a similar age restriction, effective 2017. And while a state bill to raise the smoking age to 21 is currently moving through the Assembly, the buying age remains 18 almost everywhere.

Palo Alto would join Santa Clara County as the exception if the City Council approves the committee's unanimous recommendation, as it is expected to do. In addition to the four council members who approved the change Tuesday night, Mayor Pat Burt (who chaired the committee last year) indicated last year that he would support a higher age limit (at that time, a proposal to support legislative efforts that would raise the age limit fizzled in the committee by a 2-2 vote).

The plan to raise the age limit ended up in front of the committee Tuesday as part of a separate proposal to establish a licensing program for tobacco retailers. Since late last year, Palo Alto officials have been corresponding with Santa Clara County about the county administering and enforcing the city's new licensing program.

On Tuesday night, Public Works staff said that the county has indicated that it is willing to administer Palo Alto's new program, which would apply to the city's roughly 30 tobacco retailers. The city, however, would have to adopt the county's tobacco-licensing ordinance, which includes a minimum age of 21 for tobacco sales, a complete ban on sales of flavored tobacco and a prohibition on new retailers within 1,000 feet of a school, 5,000 feet of each other, or inside a pharmacy. After a brief discussion, the committee agreed that the move is worth pursuing.

Councilman Marc Berman, who last year provided one of the two dissenting votes (Cory Wolbach joined him in dissent), once again voiced some skepticism about the new age requirement. If a 19-year-old is old enough make a decision to go off to war, Berman said, why shouldn't he be considered mature enough to make a decision about buying cigarettes?

"If smoking is bad, and smoking is bad for everybody, and you're an adult at 18, why don't we ban smoking for everybody?" Berman asked. "Why are we deciding to just ban smoking for people who are just 18, 19 and 20? Why are we treating people who are 18, 19 and 20 differently from people who are 21, 22 and 23 when it comes to smoking?"

Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a retired nurse and former county supervisor, countered that smoking is "incredibly addictive" and argued in favor of raising the age for tobacco sales.

"It would be a public health service if you can in some way keep kids in their teens from smoking until they're 21. If you can stop a couple of people from becoming addicted, you've done some good for your community," Kniss said.

The county, which took action in June 2015 to raise the age for tobacco sales, concluded that the younger the person is when he or she first tries tobacco, the more likely they are to get addicted. In a letter to the city last year, the county's Public Health Director Sara Cody wrote that an estimated 90 percent of tobacco users start before the age of 21 and about 80 percent try it before they are 18. About 75 percent of teen smokers continue into their adult years, Cody noted. She cited a report by the Institute of Medicine predicting that raising the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21 will, over time, reduce the smoking rate by about 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent.

"By making it harder for teens and young adults ages 18-21 to get access to tobacco, we are preventing more lifetime smokers, thereby reducing future health care costs and the leading preventable cause of death," Cody wrote.

The committee didn't need much swaying. Councilman Greg Scharff called the county's approach a "great program" and said he definitely wants to see Palo Alto move forward on it.

Committee Chair Tom DuBois, who also supported raising the smoking age last year, concurred. Berman, despite initial misgivings, ultimately voted along with his colleagues.

There was even less debate about the proposal to ban smoking from local multi-family housing complexes. Last year, the committee held several public hearings on the proposed ban and conducted a survey, which showed a vast majority of respondents supporting the ban.

Mary Dimit, who lives in a downtown condominium, addressed the committee Tuesday and urged members to move ahead with the change, which she said will allow property owners to include the smoking ban in building leases. Numerous residents in her condominium complex have requested smoking restrictions over the past five years, she said. The building's property manager has declined to do so because there would be no way to enforce the ban, Dimit said. By enacting the new law, the city would create the enforcement mechanism that building owners can use to create these restrictions.

"There's just a few people who smoke and most of us don't want to infringe on their right to smoke," Dimit told the committee. "But it does bother us so, as much as possible, if we see someone smoking or smoke coming in, we close all our windows.

"The problem is it happens at night, when we've already gone to bed or when we're in the front room and it goes into the back room, where the children are. The smoke is in there and once it's in there, once you close up, it can't go anywhere."

The committee swiftly approved the ban. Berman, who like Dimit lives in a multi-unit building in downtown, cited own experiences with racing from one room to another to close windows when he smells someone smoking.

"You can't get there fast enough," Berman said. "Hopefully, this will provide some relief to those of us who face this situation."

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


6 people like this
Posted by what about cannabis?
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Is the CC also willing to ban cannabis smoking in multi-unit complexes? SF's smoking ban does not include cannabis.

3 people like this
Posted by Cliches instead of judgement
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 11, 2016 at 1:11 pm

"If a 19-year-old is old enough make a decision to go off to war, Berman said, why shouldn't he be considered mature enough to make a decision about buying cigarettes."
Mr Berman, always ready with a cliche opinion, asks a cliche question. The answer is NO. Until it affected him personally he was clueless.

The age for being a soldier and the age for judgement about health issues are very different.

6 people like this
Posted by J
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 11, 2016 at 2:25 pm

"The age for being a soldier and the age for judgement about health issues are very different."

Bull. If being separated from the lower half of your body by an improvised explosive isn't a "health issue," I don't know what is.

Perhaps we should be discussing the (lack of) mental health in these comments.

8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm

[Post removed due to inaccurate statement of facts.]

5 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 11, 2016 at 3:41 pm

> The age for being a soldier and the age for judgement
> about health issues are very different.

Really? What scientific evidence can you provide that is non-controversial, and has garnered a consensus of scientists (worldwide) that agree with you?

And while we are talking about how a 20-year old is not wise enough to know what he is doing (vis-à-vis deciding to smoke), what makes 16-year olds wise enough to drive automobiles? What about raising the age to 21 for driving, as well as smoking?

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm

Let me try again.

How much will this cost? How many police officers will be added to enforce this?

23 people like this
Posted by Mario
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2016 at 9:03 pm

Raising the smoking age is crazy. For years this community has been talking about the need to reduce stress in young people. What better way to cut the stress than a cigarette? And a regular smoking habit helps you keep off the pounds. It's time to put cigarette vending machines in our middle and high schools!!!

1 person likes this
Posted by Carol B.
a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2016 at 4:07 pm

As a mother whose son was forced to go to war in Vietnam, I say by all means do not let children under the age of 21 go to war, and I will support Councilmember Berman in any effort he wishes to make on this subject. While both war and smoking might result in devastating futures, the issue at hand is youth smoking. Please focus on the issue.

2 people like this
Posted by Cliches instead of judgement
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 13, 2016 at 12:45 am

Wondering wonders:
>how a 20-year old is not wise enough to know what he is doing (vis-Ã -vis deciding to smoke), what makes 16-year olds wise enough to drive automobiles? >What about raising the age to 21 for driving, as well as smoking?

Did some jokester say 16 year olds are 'wise enough' to drive? I guess you are not familiar with accident statistics for teenagers. You could ask any insurance company why they charge much higher rates for young drivers.

Are you uninformed about the widely published research showing the teenaged brain is not mature?
And maybe you are not experienced with actual teens and the reckless, destructive behavior so many, not all, engage in. Have you encountered any pregnant teens?

Possibly you yourself are a teenager, given the illogical statements and comparisons.
And the silly demand for a "consensus of scientists (worldwide)"of scientific evidence.

2 people like this
Posted by Council knows best
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 13, 2016 at 7:43 am

More overreaching by our city council. Stick to the important stuff and stop trying to be a " leader" in issues that you have no business trying to regulate. The council should stop trying to micromanage our lives
If you are old enough to,serve your country ( not that any member of our city council would have experience with that) you are old enough to smoke. It is an individual decision.
And anyway, how many cigarettes are actually sold in Palo Alto?

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2016 at 8:52 am

I can't see any point to this for a city. It is something that should be done statewide, if it is going to make a difference. We are not an island and anybody can go to where it is legal to buy them unless everywhere is the same.

As for driving at 16, I think it is high time to amend the minimum age to at least 18 to start learning. 16 year olds just don't have the maturity to understand the responsibilities involved.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 13, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Nobody matures until they are given responsibilities. Teenagers can mature real fast when a parent becomes diasabled or some other crisis affects the family. I see no comparison between driving and smoking. Driving responsibly can be learned, starting with permits and restrictions. Those favoring tobacco should propose a training program that teaches how to smoke responsibly, or define whatever that may be. At least I see the adult beverage companies encouraging people to drink responsibly.

2 people like this
Posted by MissingPoint
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 13, 2016 at 8:57 pm

If you read the article, Council agreed to have the county enforce the program (ie program run by county, so saving time and money). To do that, they needed to join the county's program, which is age 21. Seems like a smart move

3 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 14, 2016 at 2:17 am

Decades ago we had prohibition and it worked so well.

Just buy your smokes in East P.A. or Menlo Park, outside of Palo Alto and Santa Clara county.

5 people like this
Posted by Carol B.
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2016 at 3:48 am

"Smoking responsibly" is an oxymoron.

12 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Feb 14, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Another dumb feel good law. If an 18 year old wants a pack pr carton of cigs they will just buy elsewhere.

Like this comment
Posted by Cliches instead of judgement
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 15, 2016 at 12:44 am

I think there is value in asserting rules that are in the individual's interest and in everyone's interest. True, some kids will buy cigs elsewhere, they think they will live forever and smoking won't hurt them. More sensible kids will accept the rule while it applies to them and not poison their lungs.

It's like obeying traffic signals even when we don't like them, or no one is looking. We may grumble, but we know it benefits everyone's safety.
True, there are scofflaws who violate the red light, but they are pretty rare, and we all have a safer drive because we know most everyone will stop on red.

If smokers knew what people think when they see a smoker, they might try harder to quit. (most people think, stupid, stupid, dumb a**)

Like this comment
Posted by townie
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2016 at 12:12 am

You're right the age to buy cigarrettes should stay at 18, You can vote, drive, be tried as an adult et...

They should raise the rate to join the military to 21,

18 year old kids haven't developed enough emotionally and have seen to many movies and video game to make a rational decision to die for their country.

Or start the draft equal oppartunity with no exemptions for rich , poor, well connected, college et.... and see how fast the government stops useless wars.

2 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 16, 2016 at 6:16 pm

Once again I find it'd be interesting to ask who gave CC the authority to enact such ordinance? What is the legal base? Is it constitutional? Can CC enact any feel-good law/ordinance at its will? What kind of society are we in if this is the case?

Like this comment
Posted by Paco
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 16, 2016 at 11:41 pm

...and the dysfuntional city government nonsense continues.... What a pity.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 27 comments | 5,734 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 2,051 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,888 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,389 views

The kindness of strangers
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 601 views


Register today!

​On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More