Tampa Bay city wants to raise vaping, smoking age to 21

Manatee County

PALMETTO, Fla. (WFLA) – As a mother-of-four, Amber LaRowe says her children see a lot each day, and they often report back.

But, the stories they were telling her, she didn’t like.

Her teenage daughter, in particular, shared accounts of teens vaping at a local high school, which not only concerned this Manatee County mom, but also propelled her to act.

She wanted to stop the sale of tobacco to teenagers in the city of Palmetto, she says, especially since some high school seniors are 18-years-old.

Vaping, she told us, is what worried her the most, comparing nicotine addiction and the rise in teen vaping to the opioid crisis.

“It’s no secret nicotine is addictive,” LaRowe told 8 on your Side. “They’ve made vaping so attractive, disguised it to look like food. Cigarettes? You can smell. Vaping hides in plain sight.”

The more she heard from her daughter, the more inspired she was to do something regarding teens and tobacco.

“For me, I learned about how the vaping is way more prevalent,” LaRowe told us.

This mama bear got busy with one goal in mind.

“To save lives,” LaRowe told 8 on Your Side. “I think we could potentially save lives.”

This passionate mom also happens to be the Assistant City Clerk for Palmetto. As she began doing her homework, she says she was shocked by what she found.

Her research regarding teens and tobacco use, she recalled, was eye-opening. “So much of this, I never knew,” LaRowe said.

One in four teens admits to vaping, according to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who has launched an investigation into more than 20 vaping companies.

Right now, since tobacco in the state of Florida is accessible to anyone over 18, LaRowe says more and more students seem to be purchasing cigarettes and vape products for themselves and their underage friends.

As both a mom and a city leader, LaRowe says it bothered her that people way too young were buying tobacco far too easily. She tells 8 on your Side she wanted to do something to “protect the youth in her city.”

That’s when she learned that many municipalities throughout the country had taken matters into their own hands when it comes to teenagers and tobacco.

More than 500 locations throughout the U.S. had stopped tobacco sales to young people by adopting ordinances to raise the purchase age to 21-years-old.

Maybe Palmetto could join the long list of cities and towns across the nation taking a stand, LaRowe thought.

The rise in vaping, she contends, was her major focus, garnering the majority of her attention due to the rampant teen trend.

“I became educated on the topic, so I wanted to educate others. A lot of this stuff? I didn’t know. I figured others probably didn’t know either,” LaRowe said Tuesday.

So, she began drafting an ordinance for the city of Palmetto, much like the ones already enacted in Ft. Lauderdale and Alachua County, to raise the age from 18 to 21 if you want to buy tobacco.

“Alcohol, that was 18, and then it became 21, and there’s a lot of data to support that. So, I don’t feel nicotine should be any different,” she told us.

But, not everyone in Palmetto agrees.

Some retailers, including several along 8th Avenue West, feel targeted by this proposed ordinance.

One store owner told 8 on Your Side off-camera that he’s been in Palmetto for 25 years and would lose business.

“Why should it be that way here when you can just go down the road and buy whatever you want? They are punishing us,” he said.

Some residents, like Karen Knorr, agree. “I don’t think there’s that big of a difference [between 18 and 21]. If they can join the Army at 18, they should be able to smoke or do whatever.”

Right now, 18 states have raised the age to 21 to purchase tobacco products.

LaRowe says she is using the Ft. Lauderdale ordinance as a template for Palmetto. She told 8 on Your Side that the five city commissioners have already voiced their support on the matter.

If enacted, the ordinance would, most likely, be enacted by the end of this year with a possible six-month grace period.

City commissioners in Palmetto will consider the ordinance during a first reading, scheduled at a regular meeting on Nov. 18.

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