County raises tobacco purchasing age to 21
GENESEE COUNTY — If you’re under 21, you can no longer buy cigarettes in Genesee County.
The Genesee County Board of Commissioners voted 7-2 in favor of prohibiting retail sales of tobacco products to individuals under 21 at Tuesday’s meeting, marking the body as the second to raise the purchasing age in the State of Michigan.
District 6 Commissioner Drew Shapiro and District 9 Commissioner David Martin expressed concern over possible litigation for violating state law and going against the word of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Martin, of Davison, said he fears the commission has made the county vulnerable to litigation.
“The county has put us in jeopardy by passing the (tobacco sale) ban,” he told the Richfield Township Board of Trustees at its meeting, Feb. 14. “The attorney said it was not legal, but seven of the commissioners voted it in anyway.”
The decision was met with overwhelming support from the health community.
“It’s impossible to know, at this point, whether a Genesee County ‘Tobacco 21’ resolution will be challenged in court, but it is worth noting that a similar ordinance in Ann Arbor has not yet been challenged, nor have the hundreds of similar ordinance across the cities and counties of this country,” said David Hodgkins of the American Heart Association.
Hodgkins was one of several speakers from local health organizations who approached the microphone during the public comments portion of the meeting to affirm support for the ordinance. Angela Clock, executive director of Tobacco Free Michigan, said more intimidation from opposition is likely to follow the ruling.
“Intimidation through litigation threats are pretty common,” said Clock. “Many of those cases have never come to fruition. When they do, tobacco companies lose and the locals win.”
Commissioner Brenda Clack of district 2 is one of the strongest and most vocal proponents of Tobacco 21. Clack recounted for the Board an emotional story of her father’s struggles with smoking, her experiences with secondhand smoke and her lobbying in the House of Representatives for a smoking ban in public locations.
“You have to step out on faith. You have to step and say, ‘now is the time to make Genesee County a healthier climate,” said Clack. “It is worth the lives of our children to take a stand.”
Shapiro, though in agreement with the health hazards of smoking, asked his fellow commissioners to put aside emotion and consider whether pitting people against the state over “symbolic gestures” is the best way to enact the policy. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Shapiro, controls the health department and is bound to the opinion of the Attorney General.
“I’m not willing to go to jail for a year a pay a $1,000 fine over something that I think violates state law and is a defensible position, and the last thing I want to see is my colleagues charged with misdemeanors,” said Shapiro.
Shapiro went on to say he is “pleading” with his fellow commissioners to exercise caution.
District 1 Commissioner Bryant Nolden and Clack both said the county should set an example and go outside the box, and the possibility of state action and enforcement is unlikely to materialize.
“Let’s be bold,” said Clack.
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