Months of deliberation and debate came to a head Thursday as city councilors voted to raise the age to buy, use and possess tobacco and nicotine products in Keene from 18 to 21.

Effective immediately, the new ordinance covers tobacco products, liquid nicotine and electronic cigarettes, which are battery-operated devices containing nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. (E-cigarettes are tobacco-free and produce vapor instead of smoke, so using them is typically called “vaping.”)

Violators are subject to a fine of up to $50 for the first offense and $100 each time after that. State law includes a provision that allows courts to include an education program as part or all of the punishment.

State law allows municipalities to pass stricter laws related to the sale and possession of tobacco products.

Ten of Keene’s 15 councilors voted for the ordinance. Councilors George S. Hansel, Margaret M. Rice, Robert B. Sutherland and Carl B. Jacobs dissented, and Councilor Mitchell H. Greenwald was absent.

At the same meeting, but with far less discussion, the City Council voted to communicate its support to N.H. Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, of legislation that would raise the age for tobacco and nicotine products statewide. That measure passed 13-1 Thursday night, with Councilor Sutherland opposed.

“... Here we go again where the council wants to tell the Legislature how to do their job,” Sutherland said.

Vaping at center of debate

Though the newly adopted city ordinance also covers combustible cigarettes, vaping products dominated the discussion.

Kathleen “Kate” McNally, the program manager for the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco Free Communities at Cheshire Medical Center, approached the council in June on the coalition’s behalf and suggested raising the age.

Pointing to a “vaping epidemic” in middle and high schools, McNally and the proposal’s supporters argued raising the age would limit access by teenagers and decrease addiction to tobacco and nicotine products.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey of middle and high school students that showed a sharp increase in vaping among teenagers over last year — a total of 1.5 million more students.

But council committee meetings have also drawn several opponents of the ordinance: libertarians defending individual freedoms, business owners concerned about lost profits, and former smokers who claim vaping is a successful cessation tool.

At Thursday’s meeting, At-Large Councilor Randy L. Filiault fervently backed the ordinance and dismissed any notion that vaping is harmless.

“It is a new nasty habit that the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the FDA call an epidemic. This is not saving somebody from smoking,” Filiault said. “... This is why local officials like us have to take the bull by the horns and do the right thing.”

He drew a comparison to tobacco manufacturers and distributors that marketed cigarettes decades ago without disclosing information about the carcinogens in the products.

“And who did they go after? They went after the teenagers, one of them being my mother. Back when she was 15, she started smoking. She died by the time I was 16,” Filiault said. “... You know what’s gonna be next? Vaping.”

E-cigarettes and vaping products are still relatively new, he said, so there are plenty of uncertainties. But he said the issue parallels a different epidemic gripping the region.

“You know, I guess it kind of reminds you of the opiates 10 years ago, doesn’t it? ‘They’re safe, don’t worry about (it), they’re not addicting.’ They were,” Filiault said. “We’ve heard cigarettes weren’t addicting: They were. We’ve heard vaping isn’t addicting: It will be.”

He also addressed a common defense against the ordinance, that 18-year-olds are adults who can vote and enlist in the military. Filiault said that point isn’t compelling and called it “more of an excuse than it is an argument.”

Rice, who represents Ward 4, insisted otherwise.

“As the only person on this council who is remotely close to the age range that would be affected,” Rice, 24, said, to laughter, “I trust my peers to make healthy decisions if they’re empowered to do so.”

Being empowered means having access to education about tobacco and nicotine and getting encouragement from the community to live healthy, she said. The focus shouldn’t be on punishing people for making decisions that the council doesn’t agree with, but on mentorship programs for students, Rice added.

Hansel announced his intent to vote against the ordinance because a policy that affects a particular age group “throws up some red flags.”

“It deserves extra scrutiny,” he said. “It needs a lot of vetting, it needs a lot of evidence to show that that change is going to have the desired effect, and I’m not convinced it is.”

Mayor Kendall W. Lane offered his thoughts on why the councilors should adopt the ordinance, noting that it would send a message throughout New Hampshire.

“This is an opportunity for the City Council to move ahead faster than the state is prepared to move ahead,” Lane said. “It’s an opportunity for the city to make a decision for the best interest of this community, and I urge you to support this.”

Ward 5 Councilor Philip M. Jones told his colleagues that, sometimes, it’s “not really the ordinance; it’s the message behind the ordinance.” City councilors can vote on budgets and potholes, he said, but “this is where you’re making a difference on the future of Keene.”

Then Jones mentioned a vape shop owner he “read about,” though the councilor did not offer specifics.

“He said he’s gonna lose a lot of business. To me, I said, ‘Bingo! It works!’ We’re doing the right thing,” Jones said.

Sutherland vehemently disagreed with Jones’ assessment.

“I don’t think, for a city that prides itself, is trying to pride itself on economic development, that we would cheer a business going out of business,” Sutherland said.

Later in the meeting, Terry M. Clark, who represents Ward 3, reminded his colleagues that they are supposed to protect their constituents’ safety.

“It really upsets me when people start talking about business over the health and well-being of teenagers,” Clark said. “Who are we? We would profit off of this? It’s OK just because we don’t want to stymie business?”

In between arguments over how the ordinance would affect businesses and whether that was relevant, some councilors said they felt the solution was education, not policy.

Jacobs, a Ward 2 councilor, said punishment doesn’t fix a health issue.

“This action as far as I can see doesn’t address the people that we’re most concerned about,” Jacobs said. “… It isn’t really addressing the education and the recovery needs of the people who have this addiction, and I don’t want to, by voting for it, think that somehow I’ve created a magic wand that’s going to make people healthy.”

Filiault countered that the council’s actions are launching those conversations in the community.

“This is how you start educating. We have an ordinance, we say, ‘Look, we’re enforcing a different age limit from 18 to 21 because this is dangerous,’ ” he said. “This begins the education process.”

One of the last councilors to speak was David C. Richards of Ward 3 — “the only smoker in the room,” as he put it.

“If I never touched a cigarette til I was 19 years old, I would not be a smoker,” Richards said, adding that he’s lost count of how many times he’s tried to quit. “... If we can do anything to stop young people from getting nicotine until they are 19 years old, we probably would cut the use of it by 80, 90 percent.”

He said he believes that most people start smoking when they’re younger than 21.

“Stop a lifelong addiction for these people as early as you can, because otherwise you’re gonna be fighting it forever like I am,” he said.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SierraHubbardKS.