North Platte City Council unanimously approves ordinance that sets tobacco purchase age at 19

A man uses an electronic cigarette Oct. 4, 2019, in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. The North Platte City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday setting the age to buy tobacco products at 19.

Amid nationwide confusion over a new federal law meant to curb youth vaping, the North Platte City Council Tuesday set the city’s legal tobacco and vaping age — for now — at 19 rather than 21.

That’s the minimum age to buy, use or possess tobacco products, e-cigarettes or vaping products written from the start into an ordinance that received 8-0 final approval at 2020’s first council meeting.

After the ordinance’s second “yes” vote Dec. 17, however, Congress raised the national legal age to buy tobacco or vaping products to 21 in a budget bill that President Donald Trump signed Dec. 20.

That had led outgoing City Attorney Doug Stack to initially suggest last week that the council amend the ordinance to follow suit before passing it Tuesday.

When council members took up the matter, however, Stack instead said the state’s legal tobacco and vaping age — which rose from 18 to 19 Jan. 1 under a law passed last spring — has to take precedence for now.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson advised law enforcement agencies Dec. 31 to continue to let 19- and 20-year-olds buy or use tobacco, e-cigs and vaping products unless state law changes.

As a local governing board, “you’re restricted generally to what the state allows you to do,” Stack told the council during his last meeting after some 25 years as city attorney.

“There’s an argument by some that the federal government preempts the state, but that only causes confusion,” he added.

The council can always raise the minimum age to 21 later, Stack said, if and when the Legislature raises the statewide age to match the new federal law.

Indications are that a fresh push to do just that is likely during the 2020 Unicameral session that opens Wednesday morning, City Administrator Jim Hawks said.

“I would hope they would do that quickly to avoid any confusion,” he added.

Some North Platte retailers, including Gary’s Super Foods and Kwik Stop convenience stores, already had posted signs informing customers of the new 21-year-old minimum age.

Soon after Trump signed the law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website declared it illegal nationwide to sell tobacco or vaping products to people under 21.

But the budget bill gives the FDA 180 days after its passage to write regulations, which wouldn’t take effect for 90 days after their posting, a story on the Bloomberg Government website said Monday.

Nineteen states had set their minimum tobacco and vaping ages at 21 before Congress acted, but the others are struggling to respond to a law that took effect just before Christmas.

“You can’t just turn a battleship around on a dime,” Mike O’Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told the Bloomberg website.

The FDA has privately told agencies like his to tell store owners of the higher federal age but otherwise leave their enforcement systems alone, he added.

In other business Tuesday, the council:

» Gave second-round approval to ordinances to create a “street improvement district” to widen North Lakeview Boulevard and update the city’s fire code to 2018 international standards. Final votes on both will be taken Jan. 21.

» Granted a conditional use permit to the Hebrew Torah Center to build a new worship center and parking lot at 902 E. Francis St.

» Authorized Mayor Dwight Livingston to sign an environmental review of North Platte Housing Authority properties conducted by the West Central Nebraska Development District.

» Renewed the city’s contract for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide pigeon control services.

» Approved six new or renewed appointments to various city boards.

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