Push underway to raise tobacco-buying age in Minn. lakes-area communities

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The "Tobacco 21" push to get city councils in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Perham to raise the tobacco-sale age to 21 is part of a nationwide effort to prevent young people from getting hooked on tobacco.

Although it's been tough sledding in Minnesota (the Legislature shot it down last session and only two cities—Edina and St. Louis Park—have approved it so far) the measure has had more success elsewhere.

Four states have approved it—Hawaii, California, Oregon and Maine, with New Jersey soon likely to follow suit—and more than 250 cities and counties across the country have approved some version of the law.

There may be discussion but there won't necessarily be any official action taken at the next Detroit Lakes City Council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 8, but that doesn't mean the wheels won't be in motion towards a possible new ordinance.

The city council's Public Safety Committee meets Monday, and is expected to review the city attorney's recommended ordinance. If the committee agrees, it will recommend that the city council set a public hearing for September and a first reading (city council vote) on the proposed ordinance. After a second council vote an ordinance becomes law.

In this area, people ages 18, 19 and 20 who would lose their right to buy tobacco products in town have been largely quiet on the issue, as have retailers, leaving the organized opposition to electronic cigarette users.

"Vaping is our primary opponent here in town," said Jason McCoy, a tobacco cessation worker with Partnership for Health. "The biggest misconception going on right now is that we're trying to ban vaping (e-cigarettes)," he added.

Partnership for Health and Becker County Energize are among the groups pushing the Tobacco 21 measure, and supporters are advocating an ordinance that would ban the purchase of e-cigarettes by those under age 21, but they are not calling for an outright ban on the sale of vaping products.

Depending on your point of view, electronic cigarettes are either the heroes or the villains in the fight against smoking.

Anti-tobacco advocates see vaping, with more than 7,000 flavors and 250 brands, as a sort of gateway drug for young people to get into smoking and chewing tobacco.

"Vaping has increased 17 percent among youth," said Karen Crabtree, coordinator of Becker County Energize. "It's very, very popular in our high schools."

And multiple studies by well-regarded institutions have shown that vaping can lead to smoking and chewing, McCoy said.

On the other side of the vaping debate, the Royal College of Physicians and the state-run health system in Great Britain has come out in full support of vaping as an effective tool to quit smoking. They have determined that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking, and are providing vaping kits to smokers who want to quit.

Tobacco Harm Reduction for Life, a U.S. pro-vaping group, says vaping is also being used to quit smoking in the United states—pointing to less use of gum and patches, more use of vaping, and a higher success rate for smokers trying to quit.

E-cigarette users and sellers have long balked at being regulated in tandem with tobacco products, something the FDA did because most vaping involves nicotine, which is derived from tobacco.

Under new FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, the FDA just granted a four-year reprieve on extremely costly market safety reviews on e-cigarettes that would have driven many producers out of business. That will also give the agency time to study the effects of vaping on smoking cessation and initiation, and allow for the creation of much-needed general standards.

The FDA is also looking reducing the level of nicotine in tobacco products to non-addictive levels, and at banning flavored tobacco, including flavored vaping juice and menthol cigarettes, McCoy said. "That's a huge move, if they follow through on it and remove all the flavors."

As far as McCoy and Crabtree are concerned, the less vaping and smoking and tobacco-chewing young people do, the better for their long-term health.

"We don't want people to start in the first place," said Crabtree. "If they don't start, they don't need to stop."

"If you don't start by age 21 using tobacco, there's a only a 5 percent chance you'll ever start," McCoy added. "Ninety percent of smokers start by age 18."

And the economic costs of tobacco use are high for everyone.

The 13,000-some families in Becker County pay $784 a year in taxes for tobacco-related medical costs, or about $10 million, Crabtree pointed out.

"When we talk about targeting youth, it's about brain development. Your frontal cortex doesn't fully develop until your 20s. When they start using younger, they don't understand the difference between choice and consequences."

Crabtree said her role as coordinator is to bring the community together. Mental health issues and poverty are highly correlated with tobacco use, and Becker County has higher-than-average rates of both, making young people here especially vulnerable, she said.

The Tobacco 21 group plans to approach the Becker County Board to ask for a county-wide ordinance. The Frazee City Council has asked "that we do a community education (meeting) and then they'll come back and do a public hearing," she said. The Tobacco 21 group also meets with local civic organizations and is circulating a physical petition that has garnered more than 500 signatures so far.