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New tobacco law starts Monday in Bemidji city limits

BEMIDJI—The age to buy tobacco and tobacco products is set to increase from 18 to 21 in the city of Bemidji on Monday, with the same law change coming for most of Beltrami County in less than two weeks.

On March 20, the Bemidji City Council passed an ordinance raising the buying age to 21 for all tobacco-related products, including those related to vaping and e-cigarettes. The city's action followed a vote by the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners, which passed a similar ordinance Feb. 12.

The county and city were able to pass these ordinances because they act as tobacco licensing authorities. The move, specifically by Beltrami County, doesn't impact all communities, though. For example, the city of Wilton has chosen to continue selling tobacco products to those age 18 and older. The county also doesn't act as the licensing authority for Native American reservations.

Both ordinances are limited to sales, with no laws having been changed regarding the use or possession of tobacco. Additionally, the county's ordinance does include exceptions for tobacco use related to religious and cultural purposes.

According to officials, regional retailers have been notified about the upcoming changes.

"We've sent out materials to all of the licensed retailers with information letting people know what products are included," County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen said. "We also sent them posters they can put up at the check-outs and doors announcing the ordinance is in effect."

"I've gotten a lot of phone calls and the county sent mailers to retailers, so I've mailed out the city's own notice," Bemidji City Clerk Michelle Miller said. "It will let people know the main three things from our ordinance, that no one under 21 can purchase tobacco related products, no one under 18 can sell tobacco products and there is no grandfather clause."

The ordinance changes have been met with some pushback since the votes were taken. Bemidji area resident Alyshea Casey, for example, started a petition with 191 signatures as of Friday requesting the government units to create a "grandfather clause" in the ordinance.

"I started the petition because I believe that people who are currently 18 to 21 that have already made the choice to start smoking, vaping, or chewing, will continue to make that choice," Casey said in a statement to the Pioneer. "Instead of quitting cold turkey, they will find ways around it and will show younger friends how to do so as well. I do believe that the ordinance is a very good idea, raising the age to 21 can definitely help younger people to never start using tobacco products. However, without the grandfather law, the ordinance will be rendered ineffective."

As of Friday, there were 31 cities and counties in Minnesota with these policies, which has come to be known as the Tobacco 21 movement. A bill is also in the Minnesota House of Representatives to raise the buying age to 21.

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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