Why the legal age to buy tobacco isn't going up to 21 everywhere
Efforts to boost the minimum age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21 have caught on in Lake and Cook counties far more than in the other collar counties.
Six Lake County towns have increased the age threshold from 18. So has the Lake County Board, which regulates businesses in unincorporated areas.
Six Cook County communities have adopted so-called "Tobacco 21" ordinances as well.
But in DuPage County, only one community has approved such an ordinance. None have done so in Kane or McHenry counties or anywhere else in the state.
Representatives of those agencies have made the case for 21-or-over ordinances with public, data-based presentations about the dangers of teenage smoking and the potential benefits of increasing the minimum buying age.
They've also had community activists on their side, such as the students from Mundelein and Carmel Catholic high schools who joined Lake County health officials at a Mundelein village board meeting last month to persuade trustees to change the town's tobacco ordinance.
"Our comprehensive, municipality-by-municipality approach has proved to be successful because of the process and attention we dedicate to each municipality," said Lea Bacci, a prevention program coordinator with the Lake County Health Department.
Setting the threshold
Under Illinois law, the minimum age to buy or possess tobacco products and e-cigarettes is 18. But municipalities and counties can set the threshold higher.
Legislation to increase the minimum age to 21 statewide has been introduced but hasn't passed.
According to a Cook County Department of Public Health fact sheet, people who haven't used tobacco by age 21 are unlikely to start. Additionally, research shows increasing the minimum age to 21 could reduce premature deaths and preterm births.
"We can all agree that tobacco is bad for your health and that we should protect our children from being introduced to tobacco use," said Dr. Terry Mason, the Cook County department's chief operating officer. "By increasing the age limit to purchase tobacco products, we can help stop kids and young adults from becoming addicted to tobacco in the first place."
The Cook County municipalities that made 21 the minimum age are: Chicago, Berwyn, Elk Grove Village, Evanston, Maywood and Oak Park.
Evanston actually was the first community in the state to approve a Tobacco 21 ordinance, in 2014. Chicago and Oak Park followed in 2016, and the other communities made the change this year.
Like their counterparts in Lake County, Cook County health officials have supported any towns considering increasing the age to buy tobacco. They have data available online and have testified at public hearings and board meetings on the issue.
As more communities pass Tobacco 21 ordinances, Mason believes additional towns will be encouraged to take action.
"Public opinion of Tobacco 21 initiatives is high," he said. "The movement is really gaining steam."
The six Lake County communities that have increased the age threshold are: Buffalo Grove, Deerfield, Highland Park, Lincolnshire, Mundelein and Vernon Hills.
Mundelein's village board was the most recent to act. Its ordinance is effective March 1, 2018.
Mundelein Trustee Ray Semple said the Lake County Health Department and teen activists from a group called the Mundelein STAND-UP Task Force worked together to make a persuasive case.
"If it was just the health department or just the kids, I'm not sure it would have passed," Semple said. "They made a great team and presented a very compelling argument."
The health department's Bacci said her agency strategically builds support for new public policy with public surveys, education packets for retailers, youth involvement and other strategies.
"While we have had great success in Lake County, we are not doing this alone," she said.
Funding a factor?
In stark contrast, the Tobacco 21 movement hasn't gained any traction in McHenry County.
Keri Zaleski, a spokeswoman for the McHenry County Department of Health, said she doesn't think any municipalities there are considering increasing the age threshold. The county board isn't planning action, either, Zaleski said.
Health officials believe it's a worthwhile initiative, Zaleski said, but the agency doesn't have resources to dedicate to the cause.
"Unfortunately, the McHenry County Department of Health has no tobacco-free funding," she said.
No Kane County municipalities have adopted 21-or-over ordinances for cigarettes, either.
A Kane County Board committee discussed increasing the threshold in May, but the proposal hasn't progressed.
In DuPage County, Naperville is the only community with a 21-or-over tobacco ordinance.
But this month, the DuPage County Board of Health formally announced it supports bumping the minimum age to 21.
"The resolution provides local municipalities and state legislators support and guidance that promotes the well-being of our youth," Executive Director Karen Ayala said.
Additionally, the department is working with community groups to promote Tobacco 21 proposals and other anti-tobacco efforts.
"The word is out there," spokesman Don Bolger said.