Four members of the Austin City Council on Wednesday mulled whether the city should raise the minimum age for people to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.
The council members appeared to be united in their support of the change, but they took no official action.
“I think it is compelling, and I hope it is something we take consideration of in Austin,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said during a meeting of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Any change would follow in the steps of San Antonio’s City Council, which on Jan. 11 made that city the first in Texas to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21. The law will take effect Oct. 1.
California, Oregon, Maine, New Jersey and Hawaii have statewide laws that prohibit tobacco use by anyone younger than 21. Cities such as Chicago, Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., have similar ordinances.
Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the panel was united in its support of raising the age to purchase tobacco. However, Dr. Philip Huang, the medical director for Austin Public Health, said a statewide coalition pushing for the age hike has been advising cities to hold off on revising local laws in favor of a potential state law it believes has a good chance of passage in the Legislature in 2019.
During the 2017 session, there was bipartisan support for a state law to raise the smoking age to 21. Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and John Zerwas, R-Richmond, co-sponsored a bill in the House that cleared committee but died because of a procedural rule.
Huang said some of the resistance to cities moving to raise the smoking age arises from fears that state lawmakers might raise an eyebrow at municipalities creating their own regulations.
Austin City Council Member Delia Garza joked that maybe if the Health and Human Services Committee signaled opposition to raising the smoking age, state lawmakers would be encouraged to pass a law in favor of the idea.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 778 people in Travis County died from tobacco-related ailments in 2015.
In Travis County, about 13 percent of the county’s residents smoke, according to data from the state health department. Research shows that tobacco use is more prevalent among low-income residents, the uninsured and those who did not complete high school.
A 2015 study by the Institute of Medicine said that raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21 would lead to a 25 percent drop in the number of American youths who smoke, plus an overall drop of 12 percent in the total number of smokers.
“People in their 30s don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I want to start smoking,’” Huang said.