Eldon could soon raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in city limits to 21 instead of 18.
A presentation at the Eldon Board of Aldermen meeting Feb. 11 — led by Eldon High School students and representatives from the Miller County Health Center and Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation — detailed how problematic tobacco in e-cigarette vaping product JUUL has been for local youth.
"Almost half of all Miller County youth think it's easy to obtain tobacco, and as a student at the high school I especially know this is true because you see it every day with these kids," Eldon High School freshman Emilie Reynolds said. "Most of the time, when you're a senior, you're 18 years old and you can legally buy tobacco in Eldon; so if you're friends with an upperclassman they can just buy it for you, and you as an underclassman can have access to all the tobacco in your life."
The national Tobacco 21 campaign says JUUL is advertising directly to youth and most are unaware the product contains nicotine.
JUUL Labs spokesperson Ted Kwong told the News Tribune in an emailed statement: "We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. ... Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vaping products like JUUL, to 21."
Tobacco 21 claims on its website 425 states, cities and counties have raised their tobacco sales age.
Columbia passed an ordinance in 2014 raising the city's tobacco purchase age to 21. The Jefferson City Council approved an ordinance in 2017.
"We know that almost 13 percent of (high school) kids in Miller County use tobacco products and over 16 percent use electronic cigarettes," Miller County Health Center Administrator Mike Herbert said. "We know that all these kids that are using e-cigarettes today will be addicted to nicotine by the time they graduate from high school, and so that's unacceptable — we have to do something."
The Missouri Department of Mental Health's Missouri Student Survey found 16.8 percent of the 489 Miller County youth surveyed in 2018 believe someone would be "pretty cool or very cool" for smoking e-cigarettes.
Herbert said the Miller County Health Center recently reached out to Tobacco 21 Western Regional Director Ginny Chadwick.
Chadwick, a Columbia resident and former council member, said she was involved in creating Columbia's the local policy in December 2014.
She told the Eldon Board of Aldermen 18-20 year olds account for only 2 percent of tobacco sales, citing the American Journal of Public Health.
"There's definitely opposition to this policy; not everybody agrees. The most common is a civil liberties argument," Chadwick said. "We know that this is a policy that works here in Missouri. It's been done many times, and a lot of communities are considering it right now, especially with the JUUL epidemic that's happening in the schools."
Chadwick recommended the city create an ordinance to include a strong definition of tobacco products, set the tobacco sales age to 21 and create a tobacco retail license with penalties for selling to minors.
Herbert said the Miller County Health Center board of directors is encouraging cities to take the lead rather than pursuing a countywide ordinance.
Aldermen said it's an option the city should consider and do something about once more information from the public is gathered.
"There's going to be pushback and we know that, so I'd like to hear the other side a little bit," Ward 3 Alderman Bryon Hull said. "I'm sure we'll hear all about it, and I look forward to those conversations."
This article was edited at 4:15 p.m. Feb. 19, 2019, to add a comment from a JUUL Labs spokesperson.