Ann Arbor’s Tobacco Age Limit: Is It Working?

The street corner outside of Good Time Charley’s around one o’clock in the morning is littered with circles of people smoking cigarettes. To bum a cigarette off these tiers of people: simple. To take a picture of them smoking? Not so easy. When asked if they would be willing to have their picture taken for a story, every response was “F*ck no.” Their clear spite for being captured smoking presented their shame in the act. Yet, they continue to smoke.

As of January 2017, in Ann Arbor, a person must be 21 to purchase tobacco products. The state law in Michigan remains at 18, but city councilwoman Julie Grand explains, “Well, that’s the goal, to set an example for the rest of the state.” Though this sounds like a great plan, the effectiveness of this transition remains unclear, leading to further investigation. There are students between the ages of 18 and 21 that at one point could smoke, but no longer can legally. This had led to a great backlash from individuals across the city and state. Presently, the CDC reports 15.1% of Americans over the age of 18 smoke cigarettes. The new ordinance in Ann Arbor attempts to lower those numbers by making it more difficult for young people to start smoking.

The Attorney General, Bill Schuette, publicly denounced the ordinance because it contradicts state law. In response to Schuette’s and others’ opinions that the city is limiting individual freedom of choice, Julie Grand, Ann arbor city councilwoman said “There’s a lot of misinformation that goes into that choice, and there’s a deadly and addictive product, so I feel better about that calculation in a policy that has the potential to save lives.” Raising the age limit to buy tobacco has worked in other cities and even full states of Hawaii and California.

The CDC states that tobacco is still responsible for every one in five deaths annually. This can be from cancer, lung disease, diabetes, or other damages to the body. Dr. Ethan Abel, an oncology researcher at the University of Michigan explains quite simply the risk of smoking, “Cancer is a disease that kills people more often than it doesn’t. This isn’t the common cold.” He explains that the risks are too high to smart smoking, something that many know, yet that does not necessarily stop younger people from starting.

Across the country, there are foundations fighting for more strict age laws for purchasing cigarettes. One in particular, Tobacco 21, has a large success rate. The Western Regional Director, Eric Brodell points to Needham, Massachusetts to explain the success rate of changing the age limit. In a study done in Needham, MA, a city that changed the smoking age to 21, researchers found cigarette use dropped from thirteen to seven percent in high school students over six years. This is promising data for advocates of the ordinance in Ann Arbor and surrounding cities in Michigan.

Grand explains that these underage people caught with tobacco products will not receive charges for possession, “That is very important to me. We don’t want to increase negative experiences with law enforcement for young people.” Though this is good news for students who happen to smoke, it also points to another possible flaw in the implementation of the enforcement. If the police do not hold students and younger citizens accountable, critics like Joshua Johnson argue there will be no incentive to stop people from smoking.

Johnson, a 21-year-old at the university voiced his concern against the law, “Similar to alcohol, under aged individuals that have the desire to smoke will still somehow get their hands on tobacco. Similar to underage drinking, it may make underage smoking seem more appealing.” Johnson started smoking last year, stating it was due to stress and peer influence. His argument is a common one; comparing alcohol to nicotine.

Brodell pointed to a handout from Tobacco21 that responds to this claim, stating, “Alcohol is used differently than tobacco. Alcohol is used occasionally, and there may be an incentive to give alcohol to a teen to induce a party atmosphere or sexual compliance. There is less incentive to buy a teen a daily pack of cigarettes.”

Even with this statement, Brodell agrees that there is a need for increased evaluation from the departments of public health, and it needs more enforcement and allocation of funds from the state.

When asked if police are in charge of this enforcement, Brodell said, “You don’t send the cops in to check for roaches under a restaurant’s fridge, so why would be send them in to check for cigarette sales?” While this is sensible, it highlights a problem in the implementation of this law in Ann Arbor and other cities across the United States: the definition of “enforcement officers” are unknown. In fact, when talking to the cashier at the gas station on the corner of East Madison and Main street, she stated she had not ever spoken to anyone who enforced this law. Though it may be a menial task, enforcement is crucial in the start of this change if it wishes to be effective and enact true change for younger smokers. The Ann Arbor police was contacted, but declined an interview.

The fact remains that while the implementation of this ordinance was altruistic, there are no given facts that can prove it is working. This is not to say that the ordinance was a failure—rather the city needs to take further steps in implementing public health checks. The ordinance will stay in place in Ann Arbor, and other cities across the nation.

As for those who critique the law, Grand replies, “I honestly thought, who would have the audacity to say ‘let’s make it easier for young people to have tobacco products?’ But, things have changed.”


Students smoking on the porch of an Ann Arbor House



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