by CHRIS ROGERS
A proposal to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco in Winona County to 21 is advancing. While state and federal law sets the legal age at 18, some Minnesota counties and cities have changed their local ordinances governing tobacco retailers to outlaw sales to people under 21. In a split vote, the Winona County Board decided last week to continue pursuing a local “T21” policy.
This fall a group of local citizens spearheaded a push for a Winona County T21 policy, arguing that raising the legal age would make it harder for middle- and high-schoolers to get their hands on tobacco products. Many smokers start young, get hooked, and suffer a lifetime of negative health effects. A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study estimated that raising the legal age to 21 will result in a 25-percent reduction in the number of 15-17-year-olds that start smoking. “Increasing the sale age for tobacco to 21 will reduce smoking and save lives,” Winona citizen and nurse Helen Bagshaw said.
Before trying to persuade the County Board, pro-T21 citizens won the endorsement of other local governments, including the city councils of Winona and Goodview and Winona County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The Winona City Council unanimously approved a letter of symbolic support for the county to approve a T21 policy, while council members simultaneously expressed mixed feelings about the idea they were supporting. “I know the harmful effects, but I do believe if we’re sending our children at 18 — we call them adults — to fight our wars, they certainly should have the right to choose to smoke,” Winona City Council member Paul Schollmeier said while casting a vote to endorse T21. The pro-T21 citizens also approached the Lewiston City Council, but there city leaders took no action after a vote to symbolically endorse T21 failed in a tie. “For me, it was a matter of taking a right away from an 18-year-old as an adult,” Lewiston Mayor Beth Carlson said.
When the issue came back to the County Board last week, County Board member Greg Olson stated that he is in favor of raising the legal age. Olson said he asked his 18-year-old daughter and her friends what they thought of T21. “Interestingly enough, they were very supportive,” he reported. “I thought that was certainly a reason for me to support it. I’d like to see it go forward and come before a public hearing,” Olson added.
County Board member Marcia Ward made several arguments against raising the tobacco age before ultimately saying she was undecided. The state should handle setting the legal age for tobacco, not every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties, she stated. If underage tobacco use is a problem, law enforcement and school officials should do more to enforce the existing laws, she continued. If the current laws aren’t stopping underage smoking, Ward cast doubt on the effectiveness of raising the legal age. “Just raising it to 21 is a feel-good type of thing,” she said.
“I personally don’t care for tobacco and would like to see it go away,” Ward stated. However, she continued, “I really struggle with, when do we consider an adult an adult and let them make their own decisions? And for most things it’s 18.” Ward asked her colleagues, “Are we going to take away somebody’s right, and is that my role as a county commissioner to do that?”
A former, longtime smoker herself, County Board member Chris Meyer argued that the health costs of smoking do not just hurt smokers themselves, but society as a whole. County Board Chair Marie Kovecsi echoed that sentiment. Meyer said she appreciated Ward’s point about adults making their own choices; however, Meyer added, “I’m glad there are helmet laws for motorcycles.”
Obesity is a public health problem, too, Ward noted. “Do we have the authority to restrict drive-through lanes on fast food places?” she quipped.
Regardless of whether the county adopts a T21 policy, individual cities could choose to raise the legal age for sales within their city. A county ordinance would apply to all rural townships and cities that do not have their own tobacco ordinances.
In his comments, County Board member Steve Jacob referenced a common source of hard feelings: Winona-based commissioners setting rules for rural Winona County. Jacob argued the pro-T21 citizens or the county itself should reach out to the rural cities and townships — such as Elba, Altura, Rollingstone, and Minneiska — the same way they reached out to Goodview, Winona, and Lewiston. The County Board has only heard where a few cities stand on this issue, Jacob said. Before going any further, the County Board should hear from the rest, he stated. Jacob said he could support a T21 ordinance if the county sought input from rural cities and townships. “I’d like to bring the community along and get full support on this. We’re not there yet,” he stated. “I feel we have an opportunity to either bring the community together or potentially drive a wedge in it,” he added.
Jacob’s Winona-based colleagues were not swayed and voted 3-1 to move ahead and review sample ordinances that other counties have used to enact T21 policies without first doing the kind of outreach Jacob wanted.
That vote means the County Board is still a few steps away from approving a local T21 policy. The board agreed to review options for what a local T21 ordinance could look like. To actually raise the legal age, the board would need to formally propose an ordinance amendment, hold a public hearing on that amendment, and then vote to adopt the new ordinance.
Taking a look at sample T21 ordinances does not mean Winona County has decided to adopt one, Olson said in response to Jacob’s concerns. “I don’t think it’s a steamroller moving forward; I think it’s information gathering,” he stated.
Kovecsi maintained that without reviewing sample ordinances, the County Board would not have enough information to ask rural cities for their input. Simultaneously, Kovecsi argued that some form of outreach to rural cities would likely occur. Conducting that outreach was not part of the County Board’s vote.
If the County Board decides to propose a T21 ordinance, rural residents and the leaders of small cities would get a chance to weigh in on the proposed ordinance the same way everyone does: at a public hearing, Olson stated.
Kovecsi, Meyer, and Olson voted to review sample T21 ordinances. Jacob voted against it. Ward did not cast a vote.
In an interview afterward, Ward said she did not vote because she was torn. She said she sympathized with Jacob’s concern. “We have not heard from our constituency,” she stated. Asked about her decision to abstain from the vote, Ward added, “I’m just not ready to vote on it … I don’t know which way to go.”