In something of a surprise move, the Forest Lake City Council approved a Tobacco 21 policy as part of its tobacco ordinance update on Aug. 26. The policy stipulates that those with tobacco licenses cannot sell to people under the age of 21, and that people under the age of 21 may not sell tobacco for a license holder that makes most of its money on tobacco or related products. A proposed section of the ordinance from an earlier discussion also prevented the possession of tobacco products by those under age 21, but that portion was struck from the final version and not passed.

The vote to pass the ordinance, which also included several other changes designed to crack down on youth tobacco use and to install regulations on the burgeoning e-cigarette industry, passed 4-0. Mayor Mara Bain, who in previous meetings had been the council member most skeptical of making Tobacco 21 policy in Forest Lake, was not present.

Council support for Tobacco 21 seemed uncertain at the body’s last discussion on Aug. 12. Then, Councilwomen Kelly Monson and Kathy Bystrom were in favor of the idea but worried that the community did not have consensus on the topic at the time, while Councilmen Sam Husnik and Paul Girard were more noncommittal, expressing support for the purpose of the measure – keeping tobacco away from kids and trying to instill a better public health in the community – while wondering about the potential enforcement snafus of being the only city in the area with such a policy. On Aug. 26, however, all four said the benefits outweighed their concerns.

“It sends a message to our community that we care about the health and well-being of our young people,” Bystrom said.

Ordinance as a whole

Beyond Tobacco 21, the final ordinance looked much as it did on Aug. 12. New regulations include the requirement that e-cig juice be sold in child-resistant packaging, the ban on new license holders from operating within 500 feet of a school or public park, new definitions zeroing in on e-cig related products, the addition of a second annual underage sale compliance check, increased fines and suspension terms for compliance check violators, a license requirement that applicants show proof of their training structure, and other related changes.

The council had also expressed interest in the possible banning of flavored tobacco products, with the rationale that many flavored e-cig juices in particular were more likely to be favored by minors. However, that question was shunted to another day, as Assistant City Administrator Dan Undem said the effective date on that change would have to take place significantly later than the rest of the ordinance changes, due to the city allowing stores a grace period to get rid of the flavored stock they currently have. A flavored substance ban was also omitted from the letter sent to affected retailers, and Undem said the change was significant enough that staff thought those retailers deserved a full notification.

The only resident that spoke about the ordinance during the meeting, Joe Johnson, also was against a flavor ban, stating that he had been using flavored e-cigarette products to quit smoking and adding his belief that kids would simply by flavored vape products online if they were banned from local stores.

“It is doing profound things for a lot of us,” he said of vaping as an alternative to smoking cigarettes.

The council expressed an openness to further considering the full effects of a flavor ban in the future.

Tobacco 21

On Aug. 12, staff asked for clarification from the council on whether or not the final ordinance changes should include Tobacco 21. At that time, Bain said she felt it should come back without the measure, while Bystrom and Monson said they approved of the measure but weren’t sure it had the community support and understanding it needed to succeed. Ultimately, on Aug. 26, staff brought back two versions of the ordinance changes: one with Tobacco 21 and one without. This time, Bain was gone, and the remaining members did not discuss the topic long before coming to consensus: Monson, Bystrom and Husnik were all in favor of the proposal, and Girard found it beneficial enough despite his concerns that he said he would not oppose it.

“I think we have the opportunity to show the state of Minnesota how it’s done,” Husnik said, referencing the failed recent attempt at the state Legislature to pass Tobacco 21 statewide.

Bystrom had the most to say on the topic, citing studies that people in their late teens are highly susceptible to nicotine addiction and including a remark for those who might consider the measure a case of regulatory overreach.

“I am a fan of personal choice and personal responsibility,” she said. “I understand the ‘if we can go to war [at age 18]’ and other arguments, though they’re not always grounded in fact. In this case, however, we have an industry that is once again targeting young people, and this is a fact. And they’re doing so at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives when their brains are still developing.”

With the vote, Forest Lake became the 42nd city in the state to adopt Tobacco 21. While acknowledging that the effect of the ordinance may be blunted for now as none of the city’s neighbors have adopted something similar, Monson challenged surrounding communities to consider the policy.

“I know that they care about their young people as much as we do here in Forest Lake,” she said.

The ordinance takes effect Sept. 5.

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