BEMIDJI- Customers younger than 21 will no longer be able to buy tobacco or vaping products in Beltrami County following a new ordinance approved Tuesday.
The Beltrami County Board approved the motion by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Tim Sumner as the sole opposition. With the approval of the ordinance, Bemidji became the latest in a group of more than 20 cities and counties in Minnesota that also have increased the legal age required to purchase tobacco.
The County Board will discuss the timeline and implementation of the updated ordinance at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 5
"I think Beltrami County's been pretty consistent in our take on tobacco," Board Chairman Jim Lucachick said. "I feel pretty strongly about this."
Tuesday's reading was the second of the ordinance. The possibility was first pitched to the county in November, followed by the first reading of the then-proposed ordinance in December.
The ordinance doesn't address the actual use of tobacco; it merely prohibits the sale of it to those younger than 21, while making an exception for religious and cultural purposes. It also prohibits the purchase of tobacco products on behalf of those younger than 21. The ordinance incorporates both traditional tobacco products as well as modern vaping devices.
Before the vote, Beltrami County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen gave a presentation on the harm of tobacco use and how the rise in vaping products has led to a rise in smoking among youth. She said 20 percent of high school students use e-cigarettes.
A number of people came forward to support the ordinance, several of which were in the medical profession. Warren Larson, Sanford Health director of public relations for northern Minnesota, read a letter from the Minnesota Cancer Alliance advocating for the approval of the age increase.
Others spoke of their own children and how they would like the ordinance approved for their sake.
Sarah Lehman, a certified tobacco treatment specialist at Sanford Health, spoke as both a parent as well as a professional on the subject. She spoke about her 8-year-old son who already has become an advocate against tobacco after watching family members suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer.
"Despite this, though, I'll be completely honest: I can't guarantee he won't try it later in life if it's readily available," Lehman said about her son. "By raising the age of tobacco to 21, we are limiting access to our youth."
Not all those who spoke on the issue supported it. Blackduck City Manager Christina Regas said some of the retailers she spoke to said they would rather see the issue regulated uniformly at the state level rather than having a patchwork system of legal ages customers have to navigate.
Northland Vapor Co. owner Brett Erpelding said the decision to raise the minimum age could have serious ramifications for his business since it relies heavily on a college-age clientele. Unlike some of the other comments on the subject, Erpelding challenged the claim that the use of vaping leads to other kinds of tobacco use.
"It's not a gateway; it's a safer alternative," Erpelding said. "I don't know what will be gained by the passage of this ordinance, but I can certainly quantify the loss."