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Where there's smoke there's fire: County board tobacco discussion gets heated

Vape trick smoke ring on dark background

Becker County commissioners sparred sharply Tuesday over a proposed update to the ordinance that governs tobacco sales in the county.

"We shortened it up quite a bit, from 20 pages to five pages, and updated some of the definitions," said Board Chairman Don Skarie. "We did add a ban on sampling," of tobacco and vaping products, he added.

Who's 'we?' Who wrote this?" asked Commissioner Larry Knutson.

The ordinance was written by PartnerShip 4 Health and reviewed by the county attorney's office, Skarie replied.

The revised ordinance would not affect existing retailers, like Masterpiece Vapors in Detroit Lakes, since it would only apply outside city limits, Skarie said. "It only applies to stores with 90 percent tobacco sales — if a new business comes in they will know the rules in advance," he added.

Commissioner Ben Grimsley said the ordinance goes too far, and that he couldn't go along with the ban on sampling or with some of the definitions, which he said were overly broad.

"There are some pretty steep fines (on retailers for selling tobacco to minors) if you can't find the right employees," Grimsley said.

The ordinance would levy a $75 fine on retailers for the first offense and $500 for a subsequent offense.

Under the existing ordinance, 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.

"I certainly wouldn't want a steep fine for the first offense," Skarie agreed. But after that, the fine needs to be high enough to keep the retailer from reoffending, he said.

An angry Skarie said Grimsley didn't appear to have any problems with the proposed ordinance in an earlier committee meeting, and said he should have read it prior to the committee meeting.

"Well, he's concerned about it now," Knutson said.

And that's perfectly legitimate — it was on the county board agenda as a discussion topic, agreed Commissioner Barry Nelson. "All we're saying is no smoking or vaping in public places," he said.

"Then say that," Knutson said, since it's not clear in the proposed ordinance.

Grimsley pointed out that the Detroit Lakes City Council had recently rejected a proposed tobacco ordinance. "If this would not be a good ordinance for cities, maybe it's not good for counties," he said.

Skarie said he felt the city had approached the issue all wrong.

Earlier in the meeting, Karen Pifher, with Essentia Health and Becker County Energize, spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance.

"It's about prevention and making the community a better place to live," she said. "Tobacco kills more people than obesity, drugs, suicide — it drives higher health insurance costs ... it's about the 80 percent of people who choose not to use tobacco products. We have a right to breathe clean indoor air (with no vaping) just like you do with tobacco products."

She asked the county board to hold a public hearing on the ordinance, "to hear from the larger community."

A Masterpiece Vapors representative, James Robideaux, spoke against the proposed ordinance.

"The way the language is written it would actually restrict the way we operate and interact with customers in our store," he said. Vaporizers are like cell phones in that store employees need to be able to show customers how to use all the features and repair them when needed. It doesn't make any sense to have to go outside to do all that in January in Minnesota, he said.

Like cell phones, vaporizers are usually turned on all the time, even when people aren't actively using them, Robideaux said. "I'm actually sitting here 'smoking,' he told commissioners — I have two activated devices in my pockets," even though there was no visible signs of vapor or smoke.

He also raised concerns about definitions in the proposed ordinance. Instead of "youth-oriented area" based on the percentage of young people on site, he'd prefer the ordinance just say "school" or "playground."

"We have new property on Washington Avenue across from two senior living facilities," he said, and there is a group home nearby. On days when a lot of children visit the senior facilities, those buildings could become "youth oriented areas" under the definition in the new ordinance, he said.

Vaping should not be lumped in with smoking, and if that happens a lot of the definitions in the proposed ordinance need to be changed, he said.

Dr. Bob Koshnick of Detroit Lakes spoke for the ordinance: "Right now twice as many youth are vaping as smoking, it's skyrocketing, though it's leveled off a bit lately," he said.

"There is now clear evidence that if you're vaping, you're much more likely to smoke," he continued. "There's a 50 percent chance smoking will kill you, and it will shorten your life by years. It's a catastrophe."

And this was supposed to be the easy ordinance.

Commissioners agreed earlier they would also consider a separate tobacco use ordinance putting vaping under the same restrictions as smoking, with some exceptions, such as customer sampling at Masterpiece Vapors.

The acrimonious board discussion ended Tuesday with no consensus.