Evanston raises age to buy tobacco to 21, but some residents think it’s a drag

By Courtney Dillard

As of Nov. 8, all Evanston businesses must display Tobacco 21 signage.
As of Nov. 8, all Evanston businesses must display Tobacco 21 signage.

Evanston residents under the age of 21 will have to leave their city to buy their cigarettes from now on. Evanston is the first community in Illinois to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

Thirty-four gas stations, convenience stores and drug stores in Evanston must comply with the age limit, which went into effect Nov. 8. Any employees under the age of 21 cannot sell tobacco products. Businesses that violate the law will be subject to fines up to $500.

“The aim of the ordinance is to become an obstacle. It’s not necessarily a ban,” said Carl Caneva, assistant director of the Evanston Health and Human Services department. “They can still get any kind of tobacco or nicotine product from a neighboring community. That’s well within their rights.”

The change is part of Tobacco 21, a public health movement with the goal of preventing teenage tobacco addiction by raising the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. “We know that 95 percent of all adult smokers begin and transition to regular smokers before they are 21,” said Dr. Donald Ziegler, chair of the Evanston Health Advisory Council, in a news release.

Caneva and members of the City Council said they hope Evanston residents under 21 will stop and think about whether they need a cigarette.

“Instead of being able to roll out of bed in Evanston, walk across the street and buy a tobacco product, now they have to get in their car and move out of town to get that product,” said Caneva.

Some Northwestern students said the new ordinance will not have the desired effect.

“People still smoke weed and do other drugs, and it’s illegal. Now they are raising the age, so you can just ask a friend, said Marcel Hanna, a 19-year-old Northwestern undergraduate student. “A lot of people have fake IDs for alcohol. By raising the age, you get the forbidden fruit issue.”

Hanna has cigarettes shipped to Evanston from Jordan, his native country, to save money. He also said there are not many smokers on campus, so the ordinance will only affect the small group of regular smokers between the ages of 18 and 21.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Kids are going to find what they want to find,” said Emily Nowell, a Northwestern graduate student. “If they have to go to the Howard [L] stop, then they will.”

Evanston officials should let the city be more of a college town, she said.

Evanston is also known for its strict alcohol policies. Last year Whole Foods approached the city with a proposal for a “sip and shop” model for the Green Bay Road location scheduled to open next August. The concept would allow customers to drink wine or beer while they shop.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl is wary of the idea. In city council meetings, she has asked for alcohol consumption to be limited to certain areas of the store in order to better reflect the values of Evanston community members and alleviate concerns of overconsumption and underage drinking. No decision has been made regarding the future of the store.

Some Evanston store owners said they would rather not sell cigarettes to people under the age of 21 and are not concerned about profit.

Amy Akta, a cashier at the Citgo gas station on Green Bay Road, said Tobacco 21 is a good idea.

“Young kids do not buy much anyway. They don’t have a lot money,” she said. “Forget about the business. Society and health are the main things.”

Caneva said that business owners should not be concerned about Tobacco 21 because similar laws have not hurt business in the past.

“I think it is very much the same way that people were arguing when we outlawed tobacco in restaurants and bars,” he said. “The argument was that they would lose revenue because people who smoke wouldn’t come out to their restaurants, and I don’t think that’s been the case.”

Evanston joins the ranks of nearly 40 other cities with similar ordinances, including New York City; Healdsburg, California; and Needham, Massachusetts.

The issue of tobacco usage has been highly visible this year. In February CVS announced it would stop selling tobacco products in all stores nationwide. The ordinance went into effect Oct. 1. Caneva cited CVS as a success story in the fight against tobacco addiction.

“The goal is to put that obstacle in place that may make people make a different choice,” he said.