After almost two hours of testimony on Tuesday night, some of it quite emotional, the Detroit Lakes City Council opted to take no action on a proposed ordinance to raise the tobacco sales age to 21 within city limits - though the vote was not unanimous.

At the conclusion of the public hearing on the proposed ordinance, Alderman Ron Zeman introduced a motion, seconded by Alderman Barb Voss, to not give the ordinance a first reading.

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"If this were a statewide law I'd be on board with it, but from a city standpoint I'm not sure how effective it would be," said Voss.

Zeman expressed similar sentiments, noting that a local age limit of 21 and up would have "no teeth" if 18-20 year olds could just drive 3-5 miles over to the next town to purchase tobacco.

Alderman Jay Schurman agreed, noting that passing such an ordinance in the absence of a statewide law would be "penalizing local businesses."

"I don't smoke, never have," said Zeman, but added that he had a problem with the mixed message sent by the fact that the ordinance, as written, would restrict the sale of tobacco to those age 21 and up - but would not place a similar legal restriction on the usage of tobacco products.

"That's my biggest problem with this ordinance... it's kind of contradictory," he said.

Zeman's motion passed on a 6-2 vote, with aldermen Bruce Imholte and Dan Josephson as the dissenters.

"Detroit Lakes has always been a leader," said Josephson, adding that he was not on board with the idea of waiting on the state to take action before passing a local ordinance.

Imholte, meanwhile, asked City Attorney Charles Ramstad whether it would be possible to remove references to e-cigarettes and "vaping" products from the proposed ordinance. Imholte was referencing the fact that much of those testifying in opposition to the proposed ordinance at Tuesday's public hearing were objecting to the fact that its language was "lumping in" vaping products together with tobacco.

Ramstad said that if the council wanted to exclude vaping products from the proposed ordinance, he would recommend that they "start from scratch" and draft an entirely new ordinance rather than trying to strike all references to vaping or e-cigarettes from it, as they had been included throughout the process of drafting the original document.


Both sides weigh in

Tuesday's public hearing included extensive testimony from both sides of the issue, as a total of about two dozen people stepped up to the podium to make their voices heard.

"Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death," said Karen Crabtree, coordinator of Becker County Energize, which has been one of the major forces behind the local Tobacco 21 initiative.

In Becker County alone, it costs $10 million and 480 lives a year, she added.

Crabtree also noted that "90 percent of adult smokers start before age 21," and that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 can substantially decrease young people's access to tobacco.

"If you never start, you don't need to quit," she said.

Tonia Ramsey, a program leader at the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes, talked about how her grandfather had developed emphysema and lung cancer from smoking, and passed away shortly after his 75th birthday.

"His addiction took him from us too soon," she said, noting that she felt he would have been proud to be part of a community that passed a Tobacco 21 ordinance.

"Detroit Lakes has an opportunity to be a leader here," said local resident Tom Frank, noting that just as Edina was leading the way for Tobacco 21 in the metro area, so could DL's passage of such an ordinance have a "domino effect" on cities like Frazee, Lake Park and Perham.

Most of those speaking out against the ordinance were proponents of vaping, who were concerned that it was being included in the ordinance as just another tobacco product - when the Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain recently determined that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking, and has come out in full support of vaping as one of the most successful means of quitting tobacco use (both smoking and chewing).

Jenny Hoban, owner of Masterpiece Vapors in Detroit Lakes and Perham, started to give a PowerPoint presentation to that effect, though she was cut short due to the fact that each speaker was allotted a timed, two-minute limit to their remarks.

Several young people stood up to state that vaping had actually helped them to quit, and that if they had been denied access to vaping products they would most likely still be addicted to tobacco.

Others, however - many of them past and present Detroit Lakes High School students - spoke up about how even though they themselves were not tobacco users, some of their friends had become addicted as a result of being given access to cigarettes and/or vaping products by older students.

Cap O'Rourke, policy director for the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota, said that Detroit Lakes' proposed ordinance would need "significantly more work" with regards to its definitions of the differences between vaping and tobacco use.

"When you lump vaping in with tobacco, it sends the message that they're one and the same - that it's no safer to use vapor than to use tobacco," he said.

Frazee resident Kevin Price, speaking on behalf of Tobacco Harm Reduction 4 Life, said that restricting access to vaping products to those over age 21 would be taking away young adults' access to one of the more effective tools in quitting smoking - one that has a 70 percent success rate.

PartnerSHIP 4 Health's Jason McCoy said that this was not the purpose of the Tobacco 21 initiative.

"We're not trying to stop 18 year olds from using a vapor product," he said. "We are here to keep tobacco products out of our high schools... to try to save as many lives as we can."

Molly Moilanen, director of public affairs for ClearWay Minnesota, a statewide, nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing tobacco usage and exposure, pointed out that while 18-21 year olds only make up about 2-5 percent of all tobacco customers statewide, they provide the "vast majority" of access to tobacco products for teens in the 15-17 age group.