After a second round of discussion, the Branson Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance amending the city’s tobacco code.
City officials approved an amendment that would bar minors from purchasing or possessing tobacco, nicotine or vapor products and prohibits stores from selling the same products to minors. Initially, the aldermen’s vote led to a tie with Kevin McConnell, Larry Milton and Rick Castillon voting against and Brain Clonts, Bob Simmons and Bill Skains voting for the measure. Due to the tie, Mayor Edd Akers was able to provide the deciding vote in favor of the measure.
One issue of concern from aldermen, would be enforcement and punishment getting more of the focus over educating minors on the risks of using tobacco and vapor products.
“I’m a huge advocate of education and helping folks avoid that, I’m not a big fan of punishing those who are already addicted,” McConnell said. “… The wrong approach is to go after a youth and have things on their permanent record.
“What do we do if a friend is supplying it?“
“What if it were a parent, do we go after them as a supplier? I think it really starts to snowball and I have some concerns there.”I’m concerned about putting them behind the eight-ball, I’m concerned about filling our court system up,” Skains added. “When I was young … I probably would have gotten in trouble a lot of times I don’t want to see these kids fill up our court system.”
City Attorney Chris Lebeck said state law already exists on the issue, but passing the amendment gives the city local control of the issue. In 2014, Lebeck said changes to the court system in Missouri limited what can be done regarding certain offenses.
“We have a general penalty provision that says up to $500 fine, up to 90 days in jail. State law says if it is a minor traffic offense … or an ordinance violation then, for first time offense, we’re capped at $200 including court costs,” Lebeck said. “So our first-time offender, if we were to go through with this today, the city of Branson would be less than the penalty available by state law.”
With education being the goal of the amendment, Lebeck said continually fining and putting minors in the court system would not be effective.
“Clearly that doesn’t work, that punitive measure is not going to cease the behavior,” he said. “Our end goal with this of getting this online … if we get to the point where we have to cite a juvenile for this offense, they’ll be brought before a judge and two things take over.
“As a prosecutor, I have a pretty wide range of what I can do. I can defer cases, I can make recommendations they be placed on a period of education. I can propose a fine, but the goal here is looking at it from an education standpoint. (A) juvenile comes in for a tobacco offense and our goal is to get them diverted into a program where they can make an informed decision with the knowledge of what they’re doing to themselves.
“The end goal is we want to cease that behavior.”
Lebeck noted other area communities have passed similar amendments and passing the amendment now gives the city time to get an educational class in place.
For those who distribute tobacco or alternative-tobacco products to a minor, Lebeck said local courts would have the ability to give a harsher penalty, due to the decision directly affecting the health of another individual.
“We have the ability to go to the municipal judge and say ‘We have the ability to go beyond the $200 fine,’ maybe that person should have a jail time, or be placed on probation so they don’t do this again,” he said. “That’s what we commonly do with people who distribute alcohol to minors.”
When asked about conducting similar compliance checks for stores selling tobacco to minors, Police Chief Jeff Matthews said it’s something the city could put in place.
“I don’t have the staffing our resources or staff to do it quarterly, but we talked about doing it annually or semi-annually,” Matthews said. “Here’s a guarantee I can give you tonight, is if we do have a complaint selling to underage, we have volunteers we use on our alcohol enforcement efforts we can bring in to conduct an operation to specifically target the complaint locations.”
Matthews said there have been conversations to partner with entities like Branson school to help create those educational opportunities.
“The vehicle we have in place right now, I think is broken,” Matthews said. “The state law, which says we can issue a citation and confiscate to get them in the county system.
“We have noting local to get local control over our own kids. What’s being proposed here provides us that out we don’t have.
We also have no educational piece in right now for prevention … that’s the process we need to start here with Cox Health or whoever else will step up to help us.”