Monday morning, Finney County became Kansas’ 23rd locality and fifth county to raise the purchasing age of tobacco products from 18 to 21, bringing to a close over a year and a half of students and health professionals’ mission to locally limit young people’s access to the addictive substance.

But, for a moment, proponents weren’t so sure it would go through.

The commission approved a resolution including Tobacco 21 — the national movement in support of raising the purchasing age — policies with a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Bill Clifford, Lon Pishny and Larry Jones voted in favor of the change and Dave Jones and Duane Drees voted against.

Effective 30 days from Thursday, it will be illegal for anyone under 21 to buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes, tobacco products or liquid nicotine, or to buy such products for anyone younger than 21.

For much of the meeting's discussion, Larry Jones, Dave Jones and Duane Drees fell in step with one another, arguing that the policy change would be an example of local government overstepping its bounds.

Eighteen-year-olds can vote and join the military, Drees and Dave Jones said after the meeting. They should be able to decide whether they want to buy cigarettes. Both had no issue with the goal of the resolution, but, as Drees said, they did not believe it was the commission’s role to “legislate morality.” It was like dictating that citizens maintain a balanced diet, Dave Jones said.

“Their idea is fine. I have nothing against that,” Dave Jones said. “It’s just we impose rule after rule after rule … I hear from my constituents ‘You guys regulate enough. Get out of the regulation business.’”

Donna Gerstner of the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition said that the majority of businesses and community members had shown support for the resolution. Since 18-year-old students often run in the same circles as minors, of-age students would often buy cigarettes or e-cigarettes, like Juul pods, for their underage friends, she said. She said kids could buy a starter kit nearby for $1.

She and students from Garden City Community College, Garden City High School and Holcomb High School successfully campaigned for the age bump in Garden City, which approved it in July 2017, and in Holcomb, which approved it in June, but many students can still afford to drive to stores outside city limits that still offer the products to 18-year-olds.

Pishny touched on the point, arguing that not approving the change on a county level would create a noticeable inconsistency between the county and its largest population centers.

Closer to home, high school-age students still have relatively easy access to the products, creating a health hazard in the community and its schools, Gerstner said. She and Katrina Pollet, executive director of the county’s Juvenile Detention Center, pointed to increasing popularity of e-cigarettes, Juul pods and vaping among young people.

School districts punished students for smoking cigarettes or e-cigarettes on school grounds, Pollet said, but she was in favor of stronger rules county-wide. She said her department was in full support of the resolution.

Pollet said not only are e-cigarettes harder to detect — the substance often comes in sweet-smelling flavors and sometimes are indistinguishable from a computer flash drive — but they’re hazardous to students' health. As she and Gerstner said, one Juul pod was as harmful as an entire pack of cigarettes, and just as addictive.

“It’s not just in Finney County…” Gerstner said. “It’s becoming a huge epidemic and I would imagine before long, some of the other counties will try to get something passed because it’s really scary. The kids are vaping all the time and it just continues to grow, and the only way to keep this from happening is to basically do a resolution that takes it out of their hands.”

In September, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb also said the use of e-cigarettes by teens was an "epidemic."

The discussion struck a chord with Larry Jones.

“I was wavering before I came here, but I didn’t realize that this electronic deal was such a problem,” he said. “I thought it was just, you’re talking, cigarettes … I still hate government rules and regulations, but you made a compelling argument.”

At the final vote, a woman sitting alongside Gerstner and GCHS students in favor of the resolution murmured under her breath.

“Thank god,” she said.

The approval was a relief for the students in support of the policy change, said several GCHS students who attended the meeting. Senior Mariana Macias was worried about her siblings being around or having access to tobacco. It was absolutely a problem they saw in Garden City, they said, one that caused behavior issues and an unhealthy dependency on addictive substances at the high school.

Now, said Macines and her classmates, junior Sadia Ahmed, senior Dezni Ortiz and freshman Jack Koksal, they were going to go to the middle schools and educate younger students about addiction.

“What we do is what they’re going to do,” Ahmed said.

Finney County joins Wyandotte, Johnson, Shawnee and Douglas counties as the only Kansas counties to adopt the T-21 ordinance. Alongside Garden City and Holcomb, it remains the only western Kansas locality to approve the change. Ginny Chadwick, T-21 western regional director, said with the Finney County addition, 27.3 percent of Kansas’ population now lived under policy.

“It’s so good to have people around the country that are really passionate and care,” Chadwick said.

Gerstner said she will make herself available to other counties in southwest Kansas regarding the issue. In several weeks, she will speak at Hugoton students about the health issues caused by e-cigarettes.

“Obviously I can tell them what we did here and help them maybe head in the right direction and provide some guidance for them,” Gerstner said of other communities in the region.

“I think this is going to be a great thing for our county and I’m very, very happy at the outcome…” Gerstner said. “Hopefully it will slow down what’s been happening. That’s the whole purpose, is to make it so they can’t get the materials until they’re much older and can make a better decision.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.