Soon, anyone under 21 years of age won’t be allowed to purchase tobacco or e-cigarette products in the city of Duluth.
By a 6-2 vote Monday night, the Duluth City Council adopted an ordinance raising the minimum age for tobacco-related sales. But the rules won’t go into effect for another 120 days.
In recent weeks, both proponents and opponents of the new rules have weighed in on the policy, introduced by Councilors Em Westerlund and Zack Filipovich.
But at Monday night’s meeting, critics were vastly outnumbered by supporters, who jammed the meeting, wearing T-shirts that read: “Raise the age. Raise a tobacco-free generation.”
In all, 15 people testified in favor of the higher age, and no one rose to speak against it.
Three school principals lent their voices to the cause, including Duluth East Principal Danette Seboe. She described the prevalent use of e-cigarettes by students, reporting that five devices and two bottles of vaping solution had been confiscated at her school that very day.
Denfeld Principal Tonya Sconiers also urged council support for a higher age requirement, recalling the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in saying: “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Sarah Manney, a pediatrician for Essentia Health, noted that many of the vaping solutions that have caught on with young users are laced with nicotine and can lead to other forms of addiction.
“If we expose that developing brain to toxins, and nicotine in this particular case, it forms neurological connections in that addiction pathway. So, a child is more likely to become addicted to nicotine and other substances because of those pathways that have been created in their brain,” she said.
The Minnesota Medical Association threw its backing behind the ordinance, noting that if Duluth passed the measure it would join the ranks of at least 430 other local governments in 22 states that have done the same.
Jessica Stauber, a spokeswoman for St. Luke’s Health Care System, referenced stats that show 95 percent of smokers take up the habit before 21 years of age.
But a local political action committee called Duluth BizPAC warned the policy would deal another blow to convenience stores in the city and could threaten the very survival of some. Previously, Duluth limited the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, solely to adult-only smoke shops.
In a letter to the council, Duluth BizPAC Chairman Rob Stenberg said: “We suggest looking at the effect of the menthol ban ordinance, along with a number of other anti-business ordinances recently passed by the council, to gauge the overall effect of these policies before passing another ordinance that will certainly be a negative for the city tax coffers and business in the city of Duluth.”
Councilor Erik Forsman voted in favor of the new ordinance but said he would like to revisit the restrictions on sales of flavored tobacco.
“I’m probably in the minority on this, but it is my opinion that if we approve ‘Tobacco 21’ tonight, we should at least go back and look at the flavored tobacco ordinance,” he said.
Voting in the minority were councilors Joel Sipress and Jay Fosle. Council President Noah Hobbs was absent.
Sipress said he would not discount the public health risks associated with young people using tobacco-related products but cited concerns “about public policies that put restrictions on young adults that are not applied to all adults” saying that he believes such policies “over time have a cumulative negative impact.”
But Councilor Westerlund said it only makes sense for the city to address the growing risk e-cigarettes pose to young people, predisposing them to a lifetime of addiction.
“The easiest way to quit using tobacco products is to never start,” she said.