During their September 26 meeting, the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee voted three to one to recommend that the full city council draft an ordinance raising the age to purchase and possess tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21 years old.
At the full council’s October 4 meeting, Chair of the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee Chair Janis Manwaring was the first to address the council on the committee’s recommendation.
“This is really about what you want to do with the health of these young folks. Best practices for dealing with preventing underage use of tobacco products — one is to limit access. So by changing the law to go from 18 to 21, there are lots of students who aren’t going to go and do that,” Manwaring said.
Manwaring said that the use of vapes is just as dangerous as cigarettes: “I just want to say a couple comments about vaping. I think originally when it started, it was talked about as being a way to help folks quit smoking. What we’re seeing with our kids is these are kids that are saying ‘oh I’ll try vaping … I’ll try and be cool — after all, it’s safe,’ and if it has nicotine in it, it’s not safe. Nicotine and heroin are the most addicting drugs that we have in this country.”
“Historically, prohibition has not worked out well. It’s not our business. I’ve used that discussion previously. We’re here to deal with roads, basketballs, human services, so it’s outside our job description … on the other hand, I think this council needs to make a statement … how can we not do anything possible to keep poison away from our residents?” Councilor Mitchell Greenwald said.
Greenwald then produced a pack of cigarettes he said were borrowed and read from the Surgeon General’s warning: “’Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy’. Is that ambiguous? I don’t think so. Hopefully, let’s move this forward, draft an ordinance, and hopefully we will vote in a positive way.”
Councilor Margaret Rice was next to speak, and said she would vote against the ordinance.
“I think we can all agree — public health and safety is very important, but I feel the need to explain why I’ll be voting no tonight … that’s because I think that if you’re a legal adult, which is somebody who’s above the age of 18, it’s not my role to tell somebody what they can and cannot do with their own body, provided that they’re not hurting anybody else.”
Councilor Robert Sutherland, the only Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee member to vote against the proposal, said he opposes the ordinance because it should be the state government’s responsibility: “I think this is a state issue. The state authorizes the sale, they permit the licenses for sale of tobacco and alcohol, they are also the enforcement for tobacco sales and alcohol. This is the only product I can think of that the state enables local businesses, municipalities, to regulate a higher age for sale. And 21 is not the limit. We can go to 99 if we wanted to, but just like when I get mail that is not addressed to me, I forward it onto the appropriate people. I think we should be forwarding this on to Concord.”
Regarding the possibility of the state government raising the purchase and possession age statewide, Sutherland said that there won’t be a statewide raising of the tobacco and nicotine possession age until Vermont does it first, and presented an alternative method of addressing the problem.
“I think that we won’t see 21 in this state until Vermont turns 21, because Maine and Massachusetts already are, but I think it’s one of the good reasons for us to write a resolution to the governor and to the legislature to say ‘take care of this, this is your mess’,” Sutherland said.
Councilor Randy Filiaut, who also serves on the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, said that the council ought to pass the ordinance despite the state government’s reluctance to act on the issue: “Yes, the State of New Hampshire kicked the can down the road, they always kick the can down the road, and they’re gonna keep kicking it down the road. But some communities can’t use that for an excuse, and Keene never has. We need to do the right thing and step forward and say you know what, we’ll protect our youth and we’ll do our damnedest to protect our youth even if the city hasn’t.”
Councilor George Hansel said that he will be voting to have the ordinance drafted, but still had questions on the enforcement of the age restriction.
“Having a new restriction isn’t going to be any good unless we can enforce it, and as I understand it, I don’t think our police department is currently going out and has a program in place to make sure that vendors are complying with the current law. So I would be interested in hearing from our staff, and hear how they would implement this if they do pass it, but there’s a lot we have to figure out about this. I’m in favor of pushing it along so we can get more information,” Hansel said.
Before discussion ended and the vote was taken, Sutherland addressed the council again.
“I feel this is a more feel-good issue. While we can say we’re gonna lead and that we’re going to inhibit the sale of tobacco to minors, or even 21-year olds, and preventing — or at least to inhibit younger children from having access to cigarettes — it’s just a whack-a-mole game. We’re just pushing the issue. People can actually just jump on the Friendly Bus and, for one dollar, ride down to Swanzey, down to Market Basket and buy cigarettes legally at 18 … anywhere where you want to go get cigarettes outside the city of Keene, just need to get a ride,” Sutherland said.
The council then voted 12-2 to have staff draft the ordinance, which will be sent back to the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee for further deliberation.
The committee is next scheduled to meet on October 24.
Vincent Moore can be contacted at