Central Falls working to ban tobacco sales to anyone under 21

Central Falls is one step away from making it illegal to purchase tobacco products in the city if the consumer is under 21 years old.

The City Council passed the ordinance Monday night. It will not allow any retailers in the city to sell tobacco products to anyone under 21.

The legislation, which still needs a signature from Mayor James Diossa, was proposed by Councilwoman Carlene Fonseca.

“Around 90 percent of lifetime smokers start in their teenage years," Fonseca told NBC 10 News on Tuesday. "Only about ten percent start after they’re 21, so tobacco big companies drive on our youth.”

The percentage of teenage smokers in Rhode Island is among the lowest in the nation at 4.8 percent, according to a 2015 study by the Department of Health.

But city Chief Health Strategist Dr. Michael Fine, who is the former head of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said the numbers in Central Falls are higher.

“We would like to cut tobacco use in Central Falls to half of what it is today," Fine said. "18 to 21 (year olds), those are people who are really susceptible to making choices that will influence the rest of their lives.”

On the other side of the argument, however, are folks that worry about the legislation's impact on the local economy. Many small businesses rely on tobacco sales to stay in the black.

That’s why Ward 1 councilman Jonathan Acosta voted against the ordinance.

"I think that an issue -- a social issue, a health issue -- like cigarette smoking should be addressed through education and not through prohibition,” said Acosta, who referenced many of the more than 100 Massachusetts communities that have 21-plus tobacco ordinances. “Furthermore, I find it problematic that it's going to affect our small businesses here in Central Falls. In other cities, they have seen a 43 percent decrease in their sales.”

If approved by the mayor, the ordinance will go into effect on April 1.

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