Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories featuring the Top 10 local news stories of 2018.
In July 2017, Garden City became the first western Kansas locality to raise the legal purchasing age of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, tobacco products or liquid nicotine from 18 to 21, a law spurred on by nationwide movement Tobacco 21.
This year, the policy spread — Holcomb’s City Council accepted the T-21 ordinance on June 13 and the Finney County Commission followed suit on Dec. 3 in a 3-2 vote, making Finney County the fifth Kansas county to adopt the policy, following Wyandotte, Johnson, Shawnee and Douglas counties.
To date, Garden City, Holcomb and Finney County are the only Kansas localities west of Shawnee to approve such laws.
Both approvals, the result of a local push by the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition and groups of local students in response to increasing tobacco use among young people, collectively make up The Telegram’s No. 9 news story of 2018.
The expansion has been over a year-long effort led by LiveWell to advocate for the health of young people amidst a burgeoning epidemic of e-cigarette usage and to give the Garden City law increasing weight.
When Garden City raised the purchasing age, 18- to 20-year-olds could still legally buy tobacco products in Holcomb, said Donna Gerstner, LiveWell grant coordinator. When Holcomb bumped the age, they could travel just past either city limits. Once the Finney County law takes effect Jan. 5, 2019, those under 21 will have to travel outside the county to legally purchase tobacco products, she said, a barrier she hopes will prove too high for young people with limited gas money and transportation.
Gerstner has worked for months with Garden City High School, Holcomb High School and Garden City Community College students in local anti-tobacco Resist groups. The students responded to how tobacco has affected family members or the resurgence of tobacco products among classmates, and spoke out in favor of T-21 adoption.
The Finney County Commission nearly denied the law, with commissioners Larry Jones, Dave Jones and Duane Drees citing concerns with over-regulation or limiting rights of 18-year-olds, who are old enough to vote and join the military.
For Larry Jones, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill, the tipping point was the prevalence of e-cigarettes among young people, a trend that has hit an uptick in Finney County this year.
E-cigarettes are targeted specifically at young people, Gerstner said. Vaping product Juul pods come in sweet flavors, and a starter kit costs $1. They are hard to detect as some pipes looking like long flash drives and the vapor disappears quickly into the air, she said.
The long-term health effects are still widely unknown, but smoking one Juul pod is as harmful as smoking a full pack of cigarettes, Gerstner said.
“It’s not just in Finney County…” Gerstner told commissioners. “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.”
Now that the law will apply to the county, Gerstner said, she will make herself available to other southwest Kansas counties interested in the issue.
“I think this is going to be a great thing for our county, and I’m very, very happy at the outcome…” Gerstner said on Dec. 3. “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 firstname.lastname@example.org.