by John Holler

Wright County Communications

On Jan. 1, Wright County began enforcement of its Tobacco 21 ordinance, which officially raises the age in which someone can purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The county had to go out on its own to get a Tobacco 21 ordinance passed because the state Legislature hasn’t passed a law that could be applied uniformly statewide. As a result, several Minnesota counties and cities have struck out independently to enact ordinances for their jurisdictions.

However, Wright County won’t be standing alone for long as it pertains to the new ordinance. On Friday, Dec. 20, President Donald Trump signed a $1.4 trillion spending package sent to him by Congress that included raising the federal legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Since federal law supersedes state and local laws, when the federal law takes effect next summer, it will become law in every city, county and state in the country. Until then, the county ordinance will remain in place, starting Jan. 1.

The ordinance was brought before the Wright County Board of Commissioners with some staggering evidence that smoking among teenagers has seen a significant upward spike, primarily due to the emergence of e-cigarettes and vaping.

Among the findings presented to the Wright County Board by the county’s Public Health Department were that 95% of adult smokers began smoking before they were 21, teen smoking rates increased in 2017 for the first time in 17 years, half of all high school seniors and 25% of all freshman have tried e-cigarettes, tobacco tickets issued to Wright County teens more than doubled from 2016-17 to 2018-19, and the nicotine level in e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges is much higher than standard cigarettes and increases the likelihood of addiction because of the amount of nicotine being taken in.

As troubling is the youth perception of vaping as opposed to conventional tobacco products. In a 2019 Minnesota Student Survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education, 3 in 4 high school juniors who responded to the question, “How wrong do your friends feel it would be for you to smoke cigarettes?” answered either “wrong” or “very wrong” (70 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls). When asked the same question and replacing “smoke cigarettes” with “vape or use e-cigarettes,” less than 50 percent of those same students answered “wrong” or “very wrong” (44 percent of boys, 51 percent of girls).

The Wright County Board of Commissioners passed the Tobacco 21 ordinance in September by a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Charlie Borrell felt that, by age 18, if someone is old enough to join the military and potentially die for his or her country, they should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding smoking. Commissioner Mark Daleiden voted against it, citing that it should have included a “grandfather clause” that would exclude those who are already between the ages of 18 and 21 and the potential for issues with the age being 18 in a town on the border of Wright County and 21 within Wright County and employees at stores who work shifts both inside and outside Wright County.

Sarah Grosshuesch, Wright County Public Health Director, said the impetus for creating a Wright County ordinance came from meetings with school officials, who saw an alarming increase in tobacco use among middle school and high school students, as well as the inability of faculty and administration to monitor students because of the lack of a smoke smell and medical emergencies caused by the high levels of nicotine some students were putting in their bodies.

“We were hearing – the county commissioners and our staff – from schools about the significant impact of e-cigarettes and vaping on the school environment,” Grosshuesch said. “That personal narrative was pretty compelling to the commissioners, and it’s what is ultimately driving this at the federal level. Government in general is struggling to figure out how to regulate e-cigarettes in an increasingly digital environment. It’s hard to police digital advertising.”

Grosshuesch added that Wright County’s Tobacco 21 ordinance doesn’t ban flavored products, which some other states, counties and cities have done due to the belief that flavored tobacco products (which include fruit, bubble gum, mint, coffee, cinnamon and cotton candy flavors) are intentionally targeted toward the youth market. It was discussed for inclusion, but it was determined that the Tobacco 21 ordinance would be much more straightforward and easier to enforce than including a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. Similarly, President Trump, who announced in September his plan to ban all flavored e-cigarettes, has backed off that stance and it currently isn’t part of the federal legislation he signed last Friday.

By the end of the summer of 2020, the legal age to buy tobacco will be 21 years old everywhere. But, until then, while it won’t be the law of the land nationwide, it will be the law in Wright County starting Jan. 1.

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