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County to rework ordinance on tobacco sales

BEMIDJI -- Following a public hearing and commissioner concerns, the Beltrami County Board decided Tuesday to rework an ordinance that raises the legal age to buy tobacco products.

The ordinance would raise the buying age for tobacco products to 21.

The ordinance was introduced during a meeting in late November and on Tuesday, the public was offered an opportunity to speak on the proposed new regulations.

Several local health officials did just that Tuesday, offering support for the ordinance and citing its future health benefits.

A report from the Institute of Medicine shows a 25 percent reduction in 15-17 year-olds starting smoking when similar ordinances were passed, one official told the board. And another said that youth tobacco use in Minnesota is rising for the first time in 17 years according to a 2017 report.

A total of 18 Minnesota cities and counties have or are passing similar ordinances, including Otter Tail County, the commissioners were told.

In addition to cigarettes, Beltrami County’s ordinance also covers chewing tobacco and products used in vaping, which is becoming increasingly popular with younger adults.

The ordinance would prohibit selling to minors any product containing or delivering nicotine, lobelia or any other substance for human consumption, which can be used by a person to simulate smoking. The ordinance covers the sales of any component part of an electronic device, whether or not it’s sold separately, as well.

During the public hearing, no one approached in opposition to the proposed ordinance.

What the ordinance does not do, however, is ban smoking for 18-year-olds or young adults; just the sales of the products to minors.

Commissioners, however, did voice concerns about sections of the proposed ordinance. For example, District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson recommended a section of the ordinance related to illegal possession be removed, as it is legal to possess tobacco in the 18- to 20-year-old age bracket, and the law is only to restrict sales.

In his remarks, District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner also said there are cultural and religious aspects to the use of tobacco, including those in the 18- to 20-year-old range. For Native Americans, tobacco is traditionally used for ceremonial purposes.

“I’m still opposed to the whole thing, I still feel it’s a government overreach,” Sumner said. “I think this whole ordinance needs to be looked at with a fine-tooth comb. You can feed me all the data and statistics you want, but at this point, it’s not going to change my mind.”

“It becomes very clear, the health issues of this subject,” District 1 Commissioner Keith Winger said on why he supported the proposal. “As the county board of health, I don’t know how we could not do this, I feel like we have an obligation.”

District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said the board will review the ordinance language to address those concerns and set another public hearing on the subject.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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