A proposal to increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products in Portland took a step forward Monday.

The City Council voted unanimously to direct its Health and Human Services Committee to work on an ordinance that would increase the minimum age from 18 to 21. Once drafted, the ordinance will return to the council for a public hearing and vote.

Portland would become the first community in Maine to raise the legal age for buying tobacco, and join 135 other communities nationwide.

In 1998, Portland became the first Maine community to ban smoking in restaurants, and in 2013 it extended that ban to public parks.

The new proposal would affect tobacco sellers and e-cigarette vendors. Those business owners have been skeptical of the city’s plan, noting that an 18-year-old is old enough to sign up for the military, vote or buy a gun.

Councilors did not address that issue Monday, but three anti-tobacco advocates encouraged the council to raise the age. They said that people who start smoking in their teenage years have a harder time quitting later in life.

According to the U.S. surgeon general, nearly 90 percent of adult smokers started before they turned 18.

“The city of Portland leads when it comes to public health,” said Richard Veilleux, program manager at MaineHealth and the incoming chairman of the American Heart Association of Maine’s board of directors. “We do think this would make a big difference.”

Dr. Chuck Radis, who is running for the Maine Senate as a Democrat, also supported the proposal. “Personally, I would support this at the state level,” he said.

Under Maine law, a person found guilty of selling tobacco products to anyone younger than 18 may be fined $50 to $1,500 plus court fees. Anyone younger than 18 who possesses or uses tobacco may be fined $100 to $300 for the first offense and $200 to $500 for subsequent offenses.

In other business Monday, the council unanimously adopted a resolution directing the city manager not to spend city funds for nonessential employee travel to North Carolina, Mississippi and other states that have removed civil rights protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Matt Moonen, executive director of EqualityMaine, the state’s leading advocate for the LGBT community, said the resolution was important, not only because other states were adopting so-called religious liberty laws, allowing people to discriminate based on religious belief, but also because similar efforts are underway in Maine.

‘The reality is Maine is not immune to this backlash,” Moonen said.

The move is largely symbolic, since the city typically does not approve nonessential travel. However, councilors said it was important to weigh in on the issue, since Portland was the first community in Maine to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance, back in 1992.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said the city should also closely examine whether it should use city funds for essential travel to those states and encouraged citizens to do the same. “I would encourage them not to spend dollars in states that discriminate,” he said.

The council also postponed a vote on whether to spend $25,000 on a street lamp sculpture at Woodfords Corner until July 6. City Manager Jon Jennings said the extra time will allow staff to meet with neighborhood groups and get feedback.

The sculpture would be part of a larger, $2.6 million effort to improve the five-way intersection on Forest Avenue, which sees more than 22,000 vehicles a day. The project includes a public plaza in front of the Odd Fellows Hall, where an 80-foot clock tower presides over the intersection. Work is expected to begin in the spring of 2017, with construction lasting most of the year.

 

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