OWATONNA — The City of Owatonna is on the cusp of joining 40 Minnesota communities that have raised the legal minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including those used in e-cigarettes or vapes.
After a 40-minute long public hearing this week, the Owatonna City Council voted to accept the first reading of the proposed ordinance that will implement the Tobacco 21 model, a national campaign established in 1996 that is pushing for local and state governments to adopt policies requiring people to be at least 21 years old to buy tobacco products. The reading was approved in a 5-2 vote, with council members Jeff Okerberg and Nate Dotson both opposing the ordinance.
“I won’t dispute that smoking is bad in all its forms,” Dotson said during the council discussion. “I have one question, which I have asked previously of the council: how many of you would be OK with banning the sale of tobacco products from city limits? I think if we’re concerned about public health, that’s the way to do it.”
Dotson stated that he doesn’t believe there is much of a distinction between 18- and 21-year-olds when it comes to the ability to make the best decision for their health and whether or not they should be consuming tobacco products. Dotson also commended Andi Arnold, the Steele County Safe & Drug Free Coalition project coordinator, as well as members of the Owatonna High School S.H.O.C. program for their work in trying to spread awareness to teenagers about the dangers of tobacco use and vaping.
“I think that is a much more valuable resource when you can motivate and encourage fellow students not to take this up,” Dotson said to the students present for the public hearing. “There are a lot of things that people do and it isn’t the law that deters them. We’re the last stop. If someone makes this decision in their life, the law likely isn’t going to stop them from making this decision as poor as it may be.”
Though Dotson said that he understands that the side effect of the policy would be “hopefully” to minimize the number of youth smokers and vapers, he said that he could not support the policy based on ideological basis and preference of consistency that 18 has been the determined age of when someone is an adult.
Okerberg elected not to speak about his opinions on the matter during the council meeting.
Council members Kevin Raney and Dave Burbank shared their strong approval of the policy and pointed to a very specific measure in the proposed ordinance that compels them to support it: vaping and e-cigarettes.
The revised tobacco ordinance included updated language the primarily defines “electronic cigarettes, electronic delivery devices, and nicotine or lobelia delivery devices” as being under the regulation of the tobacco ordinance. Since December, community professionals have been approaching the city council about the popularity of vaping among the youth, what the U.S. Surgeon General has labeled as an “epidemic” in recent years.
“I think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that vaping should be banned for anyone under the age of 21,” Burbank said, stating that the moment he saw a 12-year-old wearing a hooded sweatshirt made by a vaping company that constructed the vaping device into the strings from the hood was when he onboard with Tobacco 21. “That’s a strategy that these places are using to hook kids. I’m too the point where I’d love to have someone from Big Tobacco come in here and try to make an argument that it won’t hurt the young people and they’re not trying to get them hooked. I don’t know if they’d get back out the door.”
Raney expressed his concern over the flavors of e-juice — the nicotine product that is used in e-cigarettes and vapes — that he feels are clearly marketed toward young children. He used known examples of cotton candy, s’mores, and bubble gum that are currently on the market. Gesturing to an 8-year-old girl sitting in the audience during the public hearing, Raney stated to the rest of the council that she is who the Big Tobacco and vaping companies are “going after.”
“In 2017, the commissioner of the FDA warned that teens using e-cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion,” Raney said. “E-cigarettes typically have more addicting nicotine than cigarettes and cigars. A study on e-cigarettes shows that the vapor contains known carcinogens and toxic chemicals as well as potentially toxic metal particles from the device itself.”
The big push from community members in support of Tobacco 21 has been that high school and middle school students have less access to a 21-year-old who could supply them with tobacco and vaping products. Owatonna Middle School Principal Julie Sullivan spoke during the public hearing that during her four years as the principal the instances involving vapes have gone from zero to more than she can count.
“This is an issue we deal with on a regular basis,” she told the council. “We need to help [the students] live a better life.”
“We probably can’t completely stop [kids] from trying it, but at least we are creating a barrier,” council member Brent Svenby said in support of the ordinance.
More than 40 people were in attendance for the public hearing including Mary Urch with Steele County Public Health, Dr. Brian Bunkers from Mayo Clinic in Owatonna, Steele County Attorney and Owatonna City Prosecutor Dan McIntosh, a representative with the American Lung Association, and several parents and children from the community.
Only one person from the public who was in opposition of the ordinance spoke, a representative from the Owatonna Smoke Shop located on Bridge Street. He stated that he was against the ordinance because there had been no discussion on how the city will regulate online sales of vaping equipment. An OHS student responded that she knows many kids in town with a vape and that none of them acquired it from online, that they all purchased it from 18- or 19-year-olds who they know in person.
Council member and chair Greg Schultz said that as a father and grandfather he has to support the ordinance for the sake of protecting the youth, but that he is frustrated that the city council was having the discussion at all.
“I am irritated that we are even talking about this,” he said. “I’m irritated that we’re talking about it on this level of government. We are a municipality. We own streets and sewers, the police department and fire department. I firmly believe that this is a federal or state thing to deal with.”
“I hope all of you are lobbying the state just as hard,” Schultz continued as he addressed the crowd. “Tell them to get on board. Encourage them. I’m disappointed with [the state] to be honest.”
City Attorney Mark Walbran said that the city’s tobacco ordinance had not been updated since 1998 and that the range of tobacco and nicotine substances and the delivery of said substances have greatly changed since then. He included language in the proposed ordinance that would also regulate hookahs as well as set a minimum age of 18 for clerks selling the products.
The ordinance will not be officially approved for implementation until after the second reading during the council’s Aug. 20 meeting.