E-cigarettes. They’re all over the news.
But soon, they may not be so easy for anyone in Rice County to get if they’re under 21.
Public Health officials, Tracy Ackman-Shaw and Deb Purfeerst, on Tuesday brought a list of six suggestions to the Rice County Board of Commissioners dealing with reducing the availability of tobacco products to anyone under 21. Two years ago, commissioners seemed to scoff at the idea of modifying its policies on smoking and tobacco, but that was before there was this tidal wave of frightening news related to vaping.
On Thursday, there were reports that a 39th person died from vaping. Another 2,051 have become seriously ill. In Minnesota alone, three people have died. Though some of those individuals have reportedly vaped illegal THC products, it’s not yet clear what caused the deaths or illnesses, which have resulted in permanent lung damage. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
With minty and candy-like flavors, and marketing designed to target children, vaping and e-cigarettes have rapidly passed traditional cigarettes in popularity among teens. According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, released last month, the number of 11th-grade students who reported vaping has increased 54% over the last two years.
Among Rice County 11th-graders, nearly 21 percent said they used an e-cigarette in the last month. That’s considerably higher than the 3 percent who say they smoked a cigarette in the same timeframe, and higher than the number of Rice County students who vaped three years ago, according to the 2016 Student Survey.
That report showed 13.7& of 11th-graders admitted to vaping with the prior 30 days.
“We know it’s a concern,” Purfeerst told the commissioners. “We can make a difference by changing our policies.”
Research predicts a 25% reduction in smoking initiation among 15-17 years olds with the T21 regulations, according to information Purfeerst provided commissioners.
Already 53 Minnesota counties and cities have adopted Tobacco 21 policies. That includes Owatonna and Waseca. Steele County and the city of Medford are considering such a move.
While Rice County licenses five establishments that sell tobacco-related products, it can lead the way for its cities. Northfield is working on what’s called a Tobacco 21 policy, and Purfeerst hopes the city and county can roll out its policies almost simultaneously. Faribault and Lonsdale, she said, have shown strong interest in modifying its city policies.
Faribault Mayor Kevin Voracek has come out in support of Tobacco 21, and has spoken with his counterparts in the county to encourage each to enact ordinances banning the sale of tobacco or tobacco-related product to those under 21.
Other recommendations Purfeerst and Ackman-Shaw brought before the board:
• Modify definitions in its ordinance to include e-cigs, include products that are inhaled, ingested, absorbed, etc., and to require child-resistant packaging.
• Prohibit anyone under 18 from selling tobacco. That would align it with regulations for selling alcohol and lottery tickets.
• Restrict the sale of individually packaged tobacco products and/or set minimum pricing.
• Increase penalties for failed tobacco compliance checks.
• Disallow sampling of tobacco products.
Overall, commissioners agreed that the ordinance, last modified in 1997, needs an update, and that the changes brought to them make sense.
Commissioner Steve Underdahl, however, questioned the proposed ban on selling individually packaged products, noting that while it may keep teens from purchasing the inexpensive products, it also keeps adults from getting them.
“It seems redundant if we’re OKing Tobacco 21,” he said.
Public Health officials will now have the County Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices work on language for the proposed ordinance. Purfeerst said she hopes to return to the board with a draft by early spring.