2017 saw many local governments introducing legislation that raised the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Now a battle is brewing in Kansas that poses a interesting question that could have ramifications beyond the state’s borderlines–are 21-and-up laws even constitutional?
A tobacconist and vape shop retailer won a lawsuit in March 2018 against Topeka’s Tobacco 21 ordinance after arguing that the ordinance violated the state’s constitution. Now, the state is bracing itself for more suits and this could be a trend that’s seen in other states with similar ordinances.
The recent court case focused on Shawnee County and examined the “home rule” principle in Kansas’ state constitution that gives cities and counties in the state the right to enact their own ordinances–just as long as those ordinances don’t come into conflict with state law. Robert Duncan, the attorney that represented the retailers, argued that the Tobacco 21 ordinance conflicted state law because tobacco licenses issued by the state allowed retailers to sell tobacco products to individuals 18 years and older. The judge in the case issued a permanent injunction in the case, prohibiting Topeka from enforcing the Tobacco 21 Ordinance because the state was already enforcing the law that set the tobacco purchasing age at 18, meaning an ordinance setting the minimum purchasing age at 21 was in conflict with that law.
The Kansas City Star notes that while there are Tobacco 21 ordinances across the U.S., this could be the first one challenged in court and won. The victory surprised many supporters of the ordinance, who see the Tobacco 21 ordinance as integral in the fight and effort to reduce the number of teens who are smoking. This could encourage other challenges to Tobacco 21 ordinances in other cities and states across the U.S.
It’s important to note that this ruling only applies to Kansas’ Shawnee County. It would take the Kansas Court of Appeals to rule in favor of the retailers to nullify all of he Tobacco 21 ordinances in the state. Other ordinances like this are spreading through the state with the recent ruling bringing into question if these too will be challenged and stopped in a similar manner.