The growing epidemic of teen vaping, which is 10 percentage points higher in Sherburne County than it is across Minnesota, will be addressed with continued educational campaigns.

That was the only thing Sherburne County Board of Commissioners could agree on during a late August work session to hear a proposal that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco in the townships of Sherburne County and at least one city that had expressed support.

The hope, according to Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney, would be to work with cities in effort to raise the legal age across the entire county, similar to the proliferation of curfew and social host ordinances that now blanket the county.

Counties have the authority to make the legal age 21 across the county, including in all its cities, but Heaney said she would not suggest that approach.

“When we work together the partnership is stronger,” Heaney said during the board’s Aug. 20 meeting.

Two commissioners - Lisa Fobbe and Barb Burandt - expressed support for Heaney’s recommendation.

“This is critical,” Fobbe said. “It’s an epidemic. We have law enforcement, juveniles, the county attorney and public health officials telling us (something needs to be done) .”

Commissioners Felix Schmiesing and Raeanne Danielowski said the effort belonged at the state level, not at the county level, where piecemeal efforts would make for an uneven playing field in the business community.

“If it is an issue, it should be a statewide issue,” Schmiesing said. “If we can’t support T21 (at the county level), I would suggest we consider making it a legislative plank. I think that would be more appropriate.”

Commissioner Tim Dolan said he would not consider making any legislative push, adding that the only and best way to address the issue he called “borderline epidemic” is through education.

“There is no support on my end,” Dolan said, referring to the suggestion of raising the legal age or making any push at the state level.

“I would encourage our board to put money toward education,” he said. “Add a subcommittee to increase outreach, marketing and to augment the system and bring parents into the process.”

He said the people he has heard from and the cities of Elk River, Big Lake and Becker have all said education is the way to go. Dolan said the same efforts that brought the percentage of smokers down should be employed now to turn the tide on young people using tobacco by vaping.

The County Board heard a presentation on T21 from several individuals, which has been shared at a safe schools meeting reported on last month in the Star News and before local city councils.

Of the four city councils to hear the presentation at their regular meetings, only one city emerged in support of the move.

The Zimmerman City Council approved a resolution of support for raising the legal age to buy tobacco.

Elk River Mayor John Dietz has been a vocal supporter of T21, but the rest of the council in Elk River was lukewarm at best with various reservations expressed. The same seemed to be true in Big Lake and Becker, based on the reads offered up by county board members.

“I applaud Zimmerman,” Danielowski said. “I just know the others are not going to do it. They are going to wait for the state to do it.”

Amanda Larson, the county’s community health services manager, gave part of the presentation on T21, which is an initiative to raise the legal age requirement to buy tobacco to 21.

Some of the reasons for the effort include knowledge that most tobacco users start before the age of 21, and teens are especially susceptible to nicotine addiction and the harmful effects of nicotine on a developing brain.

“Raising the tobacco sale age to 21 helps limit youth access via social aspects,” Larson said. “Most 15-17-year-olds go to school with 18-year-olds but not necessarily interacting with 21-year-olds.”

Jim Boyle is editor of the Elk River Star News and covers the Sherburne County Board. He can be reached at jim.boyle@ecm-inc.com.

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