by CHRIS ROGERS
Several local governments have supported raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21 in Winona County, but not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
A symbolic resolution of support for a T21 policy failed in a tie vote of the Lewiston City Council late last month, and in an interview last week, Winona County Board member Marcia Ward spoke against a local T21 ordinance. The mixed feelings among local officials come amid rising concerns about underage vaping and as some state lawmakers prepare to take another shot at passing a statewide change to the legal age.
“Increasing the sale age for tobacco to 21 will reduce smoking and save lives,” Winona citizen and nurse Helen Bagshaw told the County Board in September. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), teenagers are highly vulnerable to nicotine addiction, and a study from the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that, “most e-cigarette products contain and emit numerous potentially toxic substances.”
For Bagshaw and a group of local health professionals trying to get a T21 policy passed in Winona County, the goal is to reduce youth access to nicotine. In a 2019 Minnesota Department of Education survey, 11 percent of high school juniors in the county reported using e-cigarettes at least once a month. Statewide, the survey found the vast majority of teens get tobacco products through a friend. High school students may know an 18-year-old who can buy e-cigarettes for them, but far fewer of them are friends with 21-year-olds, Bagshaw said. Other Minnesota counties and cities have raised the legal age for tobacco in their municipalities. According to the MDH, such policies significantly reduce the number of teenagers who use nicotine.
Winona County’s elected leaders are in the early stages of considering a local T21 ordinance. The Winona City Council, Goodview City Council, and Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council have all passed resolutions calling on the County Board to adopt a T21 ordinance. The Lewiston City Council was split 2-2 on the idea.
“For me, it was a matter of taking a right away from an 18-year-old as an adult,” Lewiston Mayor Beth Carlson said. Carlson voted against a symbolic resolution of support for raising the legal age. At 18, she noted, “You can get married. You can vote. You can sign papers to buy a house or a car. You can serve your country … I know what they’re saying is, ‘It’s a matter of health,’ and I understand that, but I also think it’s a matter of freedom.”
“I’m torn,” Ward told the Winona Post. “Having been involved with public health for many years, I understand the health implications.” However, Ward continued, “I think if it’s dealt with, it should be a statewide issue, not every little municipality on its own.”
Ward also cast doubt on the effectiveness of a local ordinance at limiting youth tobacco use. Noting all of the existing state laws, school rules, and law enforcement efforts targeting underage tobacco use, she asked, “If I’ve got all these existing rules, regulations, policies, and practices, is the County Board changing it going to really impact the situation?”
Ward also sympathized with Carlson’s concerns. “When is an adult an adult? That’s a big question, too,” Ward stated. Deciding what age humans reach adulthood is a bit arbitrary, she acknowledged. However, Ward argued, “People who like government think it knows best, but personally I think the individual knows best and we have to hold ourselves responsible for our decisions.”
At least two of the five Winona County Board members — Steve Jacob and Greg Olson — thought the concept of a T21 ordinance deserved more discussion. They voted to put the issue on a future agenda, and it’s now slated for discussion at the board’s November 26 meeting.
That will be a general discussion with no proposed ordinance for the County Board to vote on, county administrator Ken Fritz stated. If the County Board wants to direct staff to draft an ordinance, do more research, or refer the issue to a committee for more discussion, it will be up to the board to decide whether and how to proceed, he explained.
Winona County could change the legal age for purchasing tobacco by amending its local tobacco-vendor-licensing ordinance. Such an ordinance amendment would require a public hearing. The ordinance would apply to several but not all of the county’s cities. Tobacco sales in Winona are governed by the county’s ordinance. Goodview and St. Charles have their own tobacco ordinances.
At their October 23 meeting, Lewiston City Council members Larry Rupprecht and Carol Boyton voted in favor of the T21 resolution. Councilman Niles Lavey joined Carlson in opposing it. Council member Dan Roberton was absent. Because it takes a majority to pass a motion, the resolution failed.