Should Becker County crack down on smoking and electronic cigarettes?

Becker County commissioners are split on the issue, but they agreed last week that at a bare minimum the county's tobacco sales ordinance should be updated to reflect current state and federal law.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

And that, with some exceptions, vaping should not be allowed where smoking is not allowed.

The issue arose with a visit to the county board by Jason McCoy, a tobacco cessation worker with Partnership for Health, who has been working with counties to update and strengthen their tobacco ordinances.

For the first time in 17 years, tobacco use by young people has gone up in Minnesota, McCoy said, referring to the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey.

Flavored cigar use is up, while cigarette use is down to under 10 percent, he said.

"There's been an explosion of use," of new flashdrive-shaped electronic cigarette products that deliver as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, he said. The concern is that those e-cigarettes lead young people to smoking.

It's been 20 years since Becker county updated its tobacco ordinance, and there have been multiple changes in state law since then, McCoy said.

Clay and Wilkin counties have passed an ordinance regulating smoking and e-cigarettes and Otter Tail County is in the process of doing so, McCoy said.

He asked Becker County to follow suit by approving a new ordinance that would "make vaping like smoking," since currently people can legally vape in most public places, with a few exceptions, he said. The ordinance approved by Wilkin and Clay counties, and under consideration by Otter Tail, also requires a 25-foot setback to keep smokers away from public doors and windows.

The existing Becker County ordinance only regulates retail licenses to sell tobacco products, and it only applies to unincorporated areas outside of city limits, said Board Chairman Don Skarie. A new ordinance on tobacco use would require a public hearing, he said.

Commissioner Ben Grimsley was not wild about the county getting into regulating how people use tobacco or vaping. "I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt the DL vaping business," he said

The business, Masterpiece Vapors, is currently able to provide in-house vaping samples and help customers with vaping equipment.

Grimsley also strongly opposed any setback around public entrances and windows. "I've heard nothing from my constituents that lack of a setback is a problem," he said.

Skarie believes it is a problem, especially around apartment building doors and windows, and non-smokers there need some protection, especially around open windows. "It's like someone smoking outside my door at home," he said. "It isn't right."

Grimsley also noted that a new county use ordinance would impact businesses like Zorbaz, which now allow outdoor smoking. "Right now people can (legally) smoke on either patio at Zorbaz," which are considered outdoor areas under state law. "I'm not interested in putting people on the street by moving people 25 feet away," Grimsley said.

Commissioner Barry Nelson said that smoking should be regulated in restaurants. "I should be able to sit at a patio to eat without someone smoking next to me," he said. And he believes that vaping should not be allowed where smoking is not allowed.

Knutson said he would not support stricter regulations on smoking than currently exist under state law.

"A business owner might want to allow smoking on the deck - we do have some rights in this country still," he said.

If Becker County does pass a tobacco use ordinance, it should exempt all the cities in the county, which should be responsible for their own ordinances, Grimsley said.

Skarie said that would render a new county ordinance virtually useless.

"If we exempt the cities, there's nothing left," he said. "A county-wide health ordinance is county-wide, it applies to all."

"Then we better get some feedback from the people it's going to affect," said Knutson.

At a minimum, the county should pass a tobacco use ordinance that complies with existing state and federal law, Knutson said.

And the county should at least put vaping on the same playing field as smoking, Nelson said."We all agree that vaping isn't allowed where smoking isn't allowed," he said. "Other than that, we'll have to talk about it."

McCoy suggested the county may want to update its existing ordinance regulating tobacco sales licenses and penalty fees for businesses caught selling tobacco to minors.

"The license fee is now $50 in Becker County ($25 for a seasonal license)," he said, "all three of the other counties (Clay, Wilkin and Otter Tail) charge $250."

The tobacco-sales license fee should be at least high enough to cover the cost of the once-a-year compliance checks required by state law, Skarie said. But he suggested that maybe instead of raising the license fee, the county should increase the financial penalties for selling tobacco to minors.

The penalty fee for a retailer found out of compliance is now $75 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense within two years and $250 for a third violation.

Nelson said that if the county is going to raise the fees, it should "jump it up a little at a time."

"Why jump it up at all?" Grimsley asked.

Nelson said he would like to keep the fee at $75 for a first offense, and Grimsley agreed. "It's usually an employee's fault, not the owner," he said.

Then the county should at least raise the fee for a third offense "an awful lot," Skarie said.

Commissioners ultimately agreed (John Okeson was not at the meeting) that they would consider an updated ordinance on tobacco sales and penalty fees, and consider a separate tobacco use ordinance putting vaping under the same restrictions as smoking, with some exceptions, such as customer sampling at Masterpiece Vapors.