Retailers Blast San Antonio for Raising Tobacco Age

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Trade groups representing convenience stores, gas stations and small grocers filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging San Antonio’s new ordinance raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21, claiming it unfairly targets them.   

The ordinance, which passed by a 9-2 vote in the City Council in January, will start being enforced in 2019. Vendors caught selling tobacco products to young adults aged 18, 19 or 20 can be fined up to $500. City inspectors will audit stores at random to ensure compliance.

But people caught buying tobacco products before they reach the legal age will not receive citations or other punishment. The trade groups – the Association of Convenience Store Retailers, South Texas Merchants Association Cooperative and Texas Food and Fuel Association – argue stores are being unfairly “singled out.”

“The ‘crime’ as established by [the ordinance] only subjects retailers to punishment though it was purportedly enacted for the health of” 18 to 20 year olds, according to the lawsuit filed in San Antonio federal court by lead attorney Clinton Glenny II.

By failing to enforce fines or other forms of punishment against underage tobacco purchasers, the ordinance “is clearly biased against one class for the benefit of another,” the trade groups claim.

The complaint compares the “Tobacco 21” ordinance to the legal drinking age, arguing that because the ordinance does not censure underage consumers for possessing or using tobacco products, it “does not provide any incentive for those whose health is supposedly at issue to change their behavior.” 

And because San Antonio completely surrounds at least 10 enclave cities, the trade groups argue the ban will not succeed in curbing youth smoking.

“In the unique case of San Antonio,” the complaint reads, 18 to 20 year olds “can travel short distances (in some instances across the street) to another jurisdiction, return [to] city of San Antonio limits, and smoke in front of a police officer without consequence.”

The ordinance also does not “bear a reasonable relationship to a valid exercise of defendant’s police power,” according to the lawsuit, because city health officials are in charge of its enforcement, not police officers.

Furthermore, without an exception for underage consumers’ purchase of tobacco products in their parents’ presence, the ordinance “constitutes an unlawful extension of the police power into the private homes of family life of Texas residents in direct contravention to the principles this state holds sacred and expects retailers to follow,” the complaint states.

San Antonio is the first city in Texas to limit tobacco sales to consumers 21 and older.

City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement Friday, “After preliminary review of the complaint, we stand behind our ordinance and will prepare to defend it in federal court.”

The complaint asks the court to declare the ordinance “unconstitutional and void” based on the trade groups’ claim they were denied equal protection under the law. They also seek punitive damages.

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