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Duluth may curb tobacco, e-cig sales

These are just a few of the vaping devices confiscated from students at East High School recently. (file / News Tribune)

The city of Duluth soon could join Hermantown in requiring people to be at least 21 years of age in order to purchase tobacco or e-cigarette products.

Duluth city councilors Em Westerlund and Zack Filipovich say they plan to bring forward a proposed ordinance along those lines on Jan. 14 for a first reading. If they do, the ordinance could go to a vote as soon as Jan. 28.

The city of Duluth has earned a reputation for taking a lead role in the regulation of indoor smoking and sales of flavored tobacco products. But it's hardly a trailblazer when it comes to increasing the legal age at which people can purchase tobacco and vaping devices from 18 to 21. In fact, 21 other cities and counties in Minnesota already have adopted similar age restrictions.

Filipovich said he's fine with Duluth not heading the charge on age restrictions, although he believes the city still has a role to play.

"Duluth has led on tobacco legislation for a very long time, and ... it's nice to see other communities stepping up, like Hermantown, with these types of efforts," he said.

The Hermantown City Council voted unanimously to adopt new age restrictions in September.

Westerlund said she had hoped the Duluth Council would move in concert with its neighbor, but she and Filipovich decided to hold off introducing an ordinance until after the midterm election. She explained that some other councilors had expressed concern that, even though no one on the council was up for election, the proposed new tobacco restrictions could become a campaign issue up the ticket.

But Westerlund believes that Duluth should be able to make an even stronger case for a higher age to purchase tobacco and nicotine-laden e-cigarette products with the benefit of time.

Earlier this week, Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, issued an unprecedented advisory that said: "I am emphasizing the importance of protecting our children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and associated health risks by immediately addressing the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use."

He called the surge in the use of e-cigarette products "a cause of great concern," and said: "We must take action now to protect the health of our nation's young people."

Since national tracking efforts began, Adams said no other drug use has taken off as quickly as e-cigarettes. His office reported that e-cigarette use by high school students jumped 78 percent from 2017 to 2018, with one in five high schoolers now vaping.

Duluth schools have seen the same kind of spike, said Pat McKone, regional senior director of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.

"We have been engaged with schools at a level that we've not seen in a long time, because combustible tobacco has been on a downward trend," she said.

This issue has been coming to a head of late, Westerlund said.

"I think that with all the gathering of information that's coming out from the surgeon general and from different public health agencies, it's clear that this e-cigarette thing has very quickly become an issue for youth," she said.

"I think it just lends credibility to this initiative we're bringing forward," Westerlund said.

"It makes it very difficult to argue against," said Westerlund, calling the higher age requirement "a no-brainer."

But Brian Annis, the owner of two Lake Effect Vapor shops in Duluth, said it's wrong to treat combustible and vapor products the same. He noted that not all e-cigarette products deliver large doses of nicotine and touted the devices as a relatively healthful alternative to conventional tobacco.

"We're in the market to try to help people stop smoking. So, the fact we're even lumped in with tobacco products kind of does our industry a disservice," he told the News Tribune back in September, as talk of a "Tobacco 21" initiative began to pick up momentum.

But Filipovich said more needs to be done to keep tobacco and other nicotine-laced products out of the hands of young people.

Without action, he said: "We're going to have a new generation of smokers starting in their teen years, and we know that nicotine is highly addictive, and it's very hard to quit, even if you don't mean to get addicted."

As more individual units of local government confront this growing problem, Filipovich expressed optimism that it will translate into broader change.

"We've heard ... a lot of legislators talk about how cities and smaller units of government are kind of like legislative laboratories or incubators for new ideas. And I think state legislators to look at what's happening in cities as sort of a benchmark for what they can do across the state," he said.