OWATONNA — The City of Owatonna moved a step closer to limiting access to tobacco products when an ordinance change that would raise the tobacco sales age from 18 to 21 was placed on the city council’s August calendar.
The ordinance, aimed at keeping tobacco out of the hands of teenagers, will be up for its first reading at the council meeting on Aug. 7, giving those in the city limits who have licenses to sell tobacco products the required 30-days notice before the ordinance goes before the city councilors for an official vote.
Placing the ordinance on the calendar for the first meeting of the council in August came on a unanimous vote during the council meeting Tuesday night following a study session about the ordinance.
The ordinance would not only raise the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products in city limits to 21, but would also prohibit businesses from having cigarette vending machines and would require all businesses that sell tobacco products, except tobacco shops in which tobacco is the main product for sale, to keep their tobacco products behind the counter and out of the immediate reach of the customers.
The ordinance would almost prohibit people from smoking “in public places and places of work, including outdoor and bar areas of restaurants.”
Those businesses that violate the ordinance will be subject to a fine of $200 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense in a 12-month period, and a suspension of its license to sell tobacco products for two years for the third or subsequent offense in that same 12-month period.
Minors who are in unlawful possession of tobacco or who unlawfully purchase such products “may be subject to tobacco-related education classes, diversion programs, community services, or another penalty that the city believes will be appropriate and effective,” according to the ordinance changes.
City attorney Mark Walbran, who brought the ordinance changes before the council, noted that the ordinance as now written did not define what a “minor” was — something which he said he would correct before the ordinance came before the council for its first official vote in August.
Walbran also noted that the last time the council had considered changes in the city’s tobacco ordinance was 1998. Walbran, who had researched what other communities across the state were doing with so-called “T21” (or “Tobacco 21”) ordinances called the Owatonna version “middle-of-the-road” ordinance.
Fourth Ward Councilor Kevin Raney, who has championed the raising of the tobacco purchase age to 21, said that he hopes that the ordinance change will make a positive difference in limiting access and use of tobacco by youth.
“I hope it does,” Raney said in response to the question of whether the ordinance change would do any good. “We’re trying to make it more tough, more difficult for teenagers to get ahold of this.”
But First Ward Councilor Nathan Dotson expressed his doubts.
“I question the effectiveness,” Dotson said. “I have little confidence that this is going to solve the problem.”
Dotson said that even educating youth about the dangers of tobacco products, “which they are trying to do,” won’t do any good unless those youth make a conscious decision not to use those products.
“At some point, personal responsibility comes into play,” he said.
Other council members took issue with what they characterized as the state’s lack of action and mixed signals on the tobacco issue.
At-Large Councilor Doug Voss noted that the Legislature was considering raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 at the same time that the governor and many legislators were pushing for the legalization of marijuana.
“Kids can be confused. They’re getting a lot of mixed signals,” said Voss.
Second Ward Councilor and council president Greg Schultz also took issue with the fact that the city was having to address the question — something he said that should have been left with the federal, state or county government.
“We’re the city. We take care of the streets and sewers, and we are the ones dealing with this,” he said.