BEMIDJI-In January, Beltrami County became the one of the latest government units to raise the buying age to 21 for tobacco and tobacco/vaping products.
The city of Bemidji soon could be following in those footsteps.
When it comes to licensing retailers to sell tobacco products, the city of Bemidji and Beltrami County act as separate authorities. The Bemidji government licenses tobacco retailers within the city limits, while Beltrami offices license sellers across the rest of the county, except on American Indian reservations.
Last month, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners approved the ordinance change to raise the buying age, referred to as Tobacco 21. On Tuesday, county officials chose to implement the new rules May 1 to allow time for a public information campaign.
As it stands now, it looks as if the city will look to mirror those dates, although several more meetings need to take place on the city's ordinance to increase the buying age.
City officials said as the county started the process of introducing and approving the age change, city officials began working on a similar amendment for Bemidji.
"When we saw the county moving ahead with their ordinance change, we approached them and let them know we had to do ours," City Manager Nate Mathews said.
"Otherwise, they would pass an ordinance and it wouldn't be effective in the city limits, when the majority of the sales are likely happening in Bemidji."
The city was initially informed about the ordinance change at the first council meeting in January, where Beltrami County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen discussed the background of the proposal. At its next meeting Jan. 22, the council held its first reading on the city's ordinance change, resulting in a 30-day notification period.
"The second reading for the ordinance will take place March 4, then the third reading will be on March 18," Mathews said. "In this case, we had to provide notice to all the retailers after we gave first reading, which is why we have the 30-day notice. That's why we have a month's wait here."
The city's procedure for passing ordinances or ordinance changes include an introductory first hearing, a second hearing with a public hearing and then a council vote for the third reading. If the council approves the ordinance change in March, the publication date will be March 22 and it would take effect April 22.
However, because the county has opted to implement its ordinance on May 1, Mathews said the city may use the same date.
"For the sake of public continuity, we're going to want to make sure we roll this out as a partner, together with the county," Mathews said.
The proposed ordinance change includes both tobacco products and electronic delivery devices, such as those used for vaping. The ordinance only covers the purchasing of tobacco and tobacco/vaping products, not possession.
When it was introduced to the council in January, there were voices of support and opposition from officials. At Large Council member Jim Thompson, for example, called the change a "no-brainer."
"If we can stop even just one kid from starting to smoke, it would be a worthwhile thing," Thompson said. "This won't cause a huge population of smokers to not stop, but even a few kids is worthwhile."
Ward 5 Council member Nancy Erickson, meanwhile, called the move government overreach.
"I would prefer and certainly could support raising the legal limit for smoking to 21," Erickson said. "But this, to me, is kind of just for show. These kids have driver's licenses, they're 18, and they can go 10 miles down the road to the gas station near Cass Lake."
In her remarks at the Jan. 7 meeting, Mayor Rita Albrecht said, "sometimes, changing behavior takes small steps. Even making it inconvenient is a small step to help young people avoid having that health issue and addiction."
Across the country, at least 387 local government units in 22 states have passed Tobacco 21 policies, according to the organization ClearWay Minnesota. Statewide, 23 city and county governments have passed such policies, with many of them in the metro area.
Outside of the Twin Cities region, government units in Greater Minnesota to pass Tobacco 21 policies include Beltrami, Otter Tail and Pope counties along with the cities of Hermantown and Duluth.