After testimony from half a dozen supporters during a public hearing, T21 was passed unanimously by Wilkin County’s Board of Commissioners Tuesday.
The new ordinance will take effect Sept. 1 of this year, and raises the tobacco purchase age to 21 in the county.
The initiative was brought forward by Wilkin County Public Health, the county’s We Care Coalition and Partnership 4 Health.
Deb Jacobs, director of Wilkin County Public Health, requested the update to the county’s tobacco ordinance.
“The main change in the ordinance is it would disallow the sale of tobacco products to people under 21 years of age,” she said.
Ashley Wiertzema, We Care Coalition coordinator, explained her coalition is made up of 12 different sectors and works to reduce the harms of tobacco use in the county, especially among youth. The We Care Coalition is a member of Minnesotans for a Smoke-free Generation, a statewide coalition of more than 60 organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Essentia Health and Mayo Clinic.
“Tobacco 21 is about preventing young people from a lifetime of addiction. Eighteen to 20-year-olds only account for about 2 percent of tobacco sales but they are an essential pipeline to younger children,” Wiertzema told the board. “Since 95 percent of adult smokers started before they were 21, increasing the sales age is an easy choice.”
She said passing T21 is “a great first step in youth tobacco prevention,” noting the coalition will continue to reduce the harms of tobacco in the community.
Breckenridge High School Principal Craig Peterson shared what he’s seen at the school regarding youth tobacco use.
“As a principal here the last three years, I haven’t busted anyone for chewing tobacco. I haven’t busted anyone for cigarettes or marijuana either, but a lot of vaping,” he said. “We put vaping detectors in our high school building this year. It gives us a text, an email, if there are any detected, but the last few months of school we didn’t get any. We’re being very proactive in what we’re doing.”
He encouraged the board to pass T21 to help the youth in the community.
Kyle Edgerton, superintendent and principal of Campbell-Tintah School, also addressed the board.
“I would like to comment on the affects it has on mental health, brain development. Nicotine affects all of that, and to think of the long-term health effects it has on people,” he said. “It’s an addiction, they need that nicotine, that hit, to get through the day. It gets the dopamine going in their brain. If you think about kids, the lasting effects of that are huge. If we can save one kid from having to go through addiction and any of those health concerns that go along with it, I think passing this ordinance is well worth it.”
A representative from Essentia Health provided a letter of support from Dr. Duane Strand and administrator Julie Rosenberg, who both work in the community and support T21.
The letter states, in part, “The Minnesota Department of Health says smoking kills more than 6,300 Minnesotans each year and costs the state more than $3 billion annually in excess health care costs.
“Strong and effective tobacco prevention and cessation policies contribute to a reduction in nicotine addiction and tobacco use rates, ultimately leading to fewer cancer cases and deaths,” the letter continues. “Policies aimed at reducing tobacco use are a healthy investment in our community and protect our youth from a lifetime of addiction.”
The letter concludes by stating that by implementing the T21 ordinance, Wilkin County will help lead the way for other communities in Minnesota.
Jason McCoy, tobacco prevention coordinator with Partnership 4 Health, shared information about the vaping epidemic.
“We know Tobacco 21 is not a silver bullet, it’s not going to stop every kid from getting ahold of a vaping device, but we think of it from this perspective: If we can stop a handful of kids from using nicotine, if we can stop just those, isn’t it worth it? What would we do to help them?”
New signage will be provided to the tobacco license holders at no cost to the county, he said, as his organization will provide them.
“We will provide education opportunities for any license holder so they understand exactly what’s going on, so there’s no need to worry about confusion by a person who is selling the products,” he said. “We really think about cessation, also. There are several initiatives already started to address cessation for these teens while they’re in school. We’ll bring those to you as they’re solidified. A lot of that funding will come from us, as well.”
Board chairman Eric Klindt shared letters of support on the T21 ordinance from various agencies and organizations. He did not state that any opposition was voiced.
After the public hearing was closed, the board discussed the request to modify the ordinance after a motion by Commissioner Lyle Hovland to move forward with the request, seconded by Commissioner Dennis Larson.
Commissioner Neal Folstad voiced his support for T21 as an extension of public health.
“It’s a good way to provide a healthy start for young people,” he said.
There are five retailers in the county that currently have tobacco retail licenses, which will be affected by the new ordinance.
Commissioner Jonathan Green reminded the board that when an ordinance is passed, several things need to be addressed.
“How effective is the ordinance going to be? How do we enforce the ordinance? The cost of enforcement, another thing we have to look at,” he said. “Anytime we pass an ordinance, we’re essentially taking away somebody’s rights. Here we’re taking away the rights of an 18-year old, a 19-year old, to buy tobacco. These same people are recruited to go to war for our country, yet we’re going to tell them you can’t smoke. How do we do that?”
Jacobs responded to the enforcement issue.
“The enforcement, whether it passes or not, still happens. There is a law in Minnesota that says we have to do compliance checks and it has to be at least once a year. That is already in place,” she said. “The enforcement would come in when we do the compliance checks.”
Playing devil’s advocate, Green then asked, “When does the slippery slope stop? Next are we going to ban our Dairy Queen in town from selling double cheeseburgers? They’re not healthy for you either. Where do we stop? As we slowly erode away people’s rights to choose, at some point we’ve got to say, ‘You know what? If a person wants to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger, we’re going to let them.’ The same thing with smoking. If someone chooses to smoke … The reason I brought up the fact that, you know, these kids can go off to war …”
“I find that a bogus argument, I really do,” Hovland said. “They’re 18 years old, they still don’t know about life. I was there, Jon. I know all about that. They fed us cigarettes in our C-rations and made us get hooked that way. Don’t kid yourself.”
Klindt said he didn’t disagree with Green’s arguments, but wasn’t comfortable with the idea of five county board members making the decision. He felt it should be the state making that law, he said.
“I hate smoke, it bothers me, but I get the point – it will now be easier to go back to the state lawmakers and say, hey, we’ve got over half the counties in the state of Minnesota doing this, now it’s time for you. It’s kind of back door, in my opinion.”
Hovland added, “Sometimes leadership has to step up, and this is one of those times, I think.”
Larson said passing T21 is a chance to make a difference to a part of the population that’s impressionable and “doesn’t always make the right decisions, through no fault of their own. They’re listening to advertising that says it’s OK because it’s flavored right. To me, that’s below the belt.”
Green noted he was not against the ordinance, but was only bringing up the counterarguments.
“To me, you’re committing political suicide not to agree with this,” he said. “The point is, there are other arguments out there and we need to carefully look at those.”
After more discussion, the board voted unanimously to pass the ordinance.
Following the meeting, Wiertzema commented on the board’s action.
“I want to thank our community leaders, local youth, and coalition members for all of their hard work and support! By passing Tobacco 21 today, Wilkin County is taking a big first step to prevent young people from a lifetime of addiction,” she said. “Research shows that 95 percent of addicted adult smokers start before they are 21. Tobacco 21 will help us reduce smoking initiation among our youth. The We Care Coalition is committed to continuing our work on reducing the harms of tobacco use in our county.”
McCoy said the primary location that will see the biggest benefit of T21 is in the county’s schools.
“Current Breckenridge High students were polled regarding the ease of access to tobacco. ‘It would take me five minutes or less to have a JUUL or other vape, I would just ask a senior,’ was their response,” he said. “This backs national data which indicates that the pathway of tobacco in our schools lies with 18-year olds. Coupled with the vape epidemic sweeping our nation, requests to purchase tobacco have become one of the greatest forms of peer pressure our seniors face. Tobacco 21 relieves this pressure.”
Wilkin County’s Tobacco 21 ordinance provides enforcement on selling tobacco to an individual under 21 and not on the use of tobacco by anyone 18-20.
“This important distinction is based in compassion,” McCoy explained.
The ordinance will cover all areas of Wilkin County and all incorporated areas that do no license and regulate the retail sale of tobacco, tobacco-related devices, electronic delivery devices, and nicotine or lobelia delivery products.
“Ninety-five percent of all tobacco users begin before the age of 21. Vaping in our schools has created an epidemic where one in four students is using some form of tobacco. We are seeking to stem the flow of tobacco into the hands of youth while providing cessation help to these students along with anyone 18 years old or older. We will be providing signage and training for our retailers to ensure that everyone is ready for our ordinance to implement on Sept 1, 2019.”