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Western Minnesota county may be first to raise tobacco purchase age to 21

Otter Tail County could become the first county in Minnesota to raise the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. WDAY-TV

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Otter Tail could become the first county in the state of Minnesota to raise the purchasing age of tobacco from 18 to 21.

The Otter Tail County Board is kicking around the idea of a "T-21" ordinance, meaning customers would need to be at least 21 years old to buy tobacco products or electronic nicotine products.

Some opponents of the T-21 ordinance believe banning sales to people under 21 across the entire county would hurt local businesses.

Employees say the M&H convenience store in Fergus sells about 200 packs of cigarettes a day, and many of its tobacco sales are to customers between 18 and 20 years old.

"Probably 15 percent I'd say come in. Still see kids come in and buy cigarettes and cigars and things," said Eli Anderson, a clerk at the store.

Businesses would face steep fines of up to $750 if they violated the ordinance, which requires proper signage as well as asking for proper identification from customers. But those in favor of a T-21 ordinance say they don't believe it would actually hurt business.

"The amount of profit a retailer keeps in their pocket is actually small," argues Jason McCoy of the Partnership for Health. He believes most retailers wouldn't miss any lost income.

One retailer brought concerns to the county board about how the ordinance could send customers to other communities.

James Robideaux, who represents Masterpiece Vapors, also had concerns about the legality of the ordinance, saying a county ordinance can't dictate how an individual city regulates tobacco sales.

Supporters tell the board that's not the only money to consider.

"Every year, about $9,187,000 worth of health-related expenses are due to tobacco just out of Otter Tail County," says Karen Pifer, the West Region Community Health Manager for Essentia Health.

Others said the issue comes down to personal freedom.

"I don't know what kind of a nanny state we want to be where we can tell 18- to 20-year-olds they're not allowed to do something," said Kevin Price, president of Tobacco Harm Reduction 4 Life.

He argues keeping young adults from using e-cigarettes is more dangerous than banning them, adding many would turn to more readily available tobacco cigarettes. He said the smoke in tobacco products is what's harmful, not the nicotine found in e-cigs.

The board isn't ready to make a decision yet, and is letting the public have one more chance to share their opinions first.

The county board will hold another public input meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 27.

Eleven cities in the state, all located in east-central Minnesota, now have a T-21 ordinance.