By Caleb Rountree
Recently, Kahn Nguyen, from Jefferson County’s Public Health Division, visited our council to talk about the rise in youth tobacco use. While discussing the current state of tobacco use in our city, it became very clear that Edgewater wasn’t prepared for the new reality of the tobacco industry. To try and prevent teen tobacco use and improve the public health of our community, we decided to act on an ordinance designed to raise the age to buy tobacco and protect the air quality in our public spaces.
Before we dive into the reason behind the ordinance, I want to lay out what it says. The two biggest parts are raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21 and creating a tobacco-free zone within 20 feet of any public transit stop.
The reasoning behind the tobacco free zone is simple. If you’re waiting for public transportation, you should not be forced to inhale secondhand smoke, which causes cancer and several other well-documented medical problems. It’s common courtesy, it’s promoting health in the community, and it’s preserving our right to clean air.
The second part is designed around what youth tobacco use looks like in 2019. One of the biggest changes in the biggest changes over the past few decades is the number of teens starting to smoke and how they’re doing it. One in three Colorado teens say they’ve used tobacco products, and 82 percent of those kids say it’s easy to get tobacco. What’s made tobacco so accessible is the rise of e-cigarettes. Juul and other companies have introduced e-cigarettes that look and charge the same as many other common devices like memory sticks, battery chargers, and other features making them very easy to hide. A teacher in the front of a standard-sized class can’t smell a Juul being used in the back of the class. The vapor disappears quickly and can be easily hidden while exhaling. One can go through the nicotine equivalent of half a pack of cigarettes in the back of a class without the teacher ever knowing.
Even worse, internal marketing documents from several major tobacco users show this wasn’t a flaw in the design, it’s a feature. With additions to the e-cig market like fruit and candy flavored tobacco pods, tobacco companies made explicit attempts to connect with a new generation of American youth to poison, and they succeeded.
As the body entrusted with public safety and health for Edgewater, council decided to cut the supply line to minors. With kids 18-20 years old accounting for 2 percent of all tobacco sales while providing 90 percent of the supply to high schoolers, we saw an easy opportunity to cut the supply to our high school kids while helping steer recent grads away from harmful substances.
While the idea of criminalizing possession of tobacco by people under the age of 21 was tossed around, we voted against it. I’m glad we did. Our goal with this ordinance is to stop teens from getting addicted and making it easier for them to find help when they become addicted. By criminalizing this, we would create an enforcement nightmare for our schools while discouraging kids to report their own use. We want kids to come forward when they have a problem, not hide a non-violent, low-level violation because they’re afraid of criminal action.
I’m proud of the direction our city has taken. With the month between vote and enforcement for our business community to adjust, we’re confident our city is proceeding responsibly, and safely while leading the metro area in preventing youth tobacco.
Contact Edgewater City Councilman Caleb Rountree at CRountree@edgewaterco.com.