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City Council passes Tobacco 21 ordinance

Individuals under 21 will no longer be able to purchase tobacco within city limits

 

Thanks to a close City Council vote Monday, those under 21 who use tobacco in Albert Lea will now have to look elsewhere to purchase their products.

In a 4-3 vote, Albert Lea City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting tobacco sales to individuals under 21 years old. The ordinance does not change the age of legal possession of tobacco products, which remains at 18.

“The safety of our community is the number one priority of any council,” Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said.

Fourth Ward Councilor Reid Olson, 3rd Ward Councilor Jason Howland and 6th Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks opposed the ordinance, while 2nd Ward Councilor Larry Baker, 5th Ward Councilor Robert Rasmussen, 1st Ward Councilor Rich Murray and Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. voted yes.

The ordinance will go into effect after the next City Council meeting, at which an effective date will be set. Vern Rasmussen said the city will work with vendors during the transition.

For Blue Zones Organization Lead Ellen Kehr, passing the ordinance was a step in the right direction for the community.

“I mean, this is not going to completely stop the situation, but at least an 18-year-old in Albert Lea can’t run to the corner store and buy cigarettes and vaping products,” she said.

The city hosted a public forum March 20 for businesses who sell tobacco, City Manager Chad Adams said, but no one attended. As of the time of the meeting, he said staff had not received feedback from businesses.

However, Dustin Trail, who manages Trail’s Travel Center, did attend Monday’s City Council meeting to express concern over the effects the ordinance could have on the rest stop.

“I know this will change our business and any other business that is like ours in this city,” Trail said.

He cited the millions of people who travel through town on the I-35 and I-90 interstates. Passing this ordinance is one more reason they may not choose to stop in Albert Lea, he said, which would cost their business not just in tobacco sales, but potentially in gas and gift store sales.

“Is smoking right?” he said. “I don’t know. Anything excess is bad, period. This is not the way to handle it. Education at the bottom level is the way to handle it.”

Howland also cited a push for better parent and youth education — along with better enforcement — as a way to address underage tobacco use.

“There is no doubt that there is a problem with vaping and e-cigarettes with our youth,” Howland said.

He did have doubts over how much impact the ordinance would have.

“I do have my doubts on how effective it will be if they can be purchased legally elsewhere in nearby towns,” he said.

Additionally, Howland said the age at which citizens are allowed to vote is 18, and if government leaders rely on young adults to make those decisions, they should be able to make their own health choices — even if they are poor choices.

Vern Rasmussen did acknowledge passing the ordinance would cost some area businesses money, though he does not expect it to be a large amount.

“For us as a council to not support this because of those ideas I think are ludacris,” he said.

Several citizens turned out to speak in support of passing the ordinance, including students there in collaboration with Jenny Hendrickson, Partners in Prevention coordinator.

Logan Howe, a junior at Albert Lea High School, encouraged the City Council to vote yes for an ordinance increasing the age of tobacco purchase. Howe did not get the opportunity to meet his grandfather, who died from emphysema caused by years of tobacco use, he said.

“I’ve witnessed my peers thinking one puff can do no harm,” he said.

Liz Heimer with the American Lung Association encouraged the board to create a “new norm” for young people, like those who do not remember when smoking was allowed indoors.

“You don’t need to wait for any more communities to pass,” Heimer said. “You don’t need to wait for the state to pass. You can start saving lives right here, right now.”

For Baker, the yes vote came with a personal story.

Baker said he started smoking at 12 years old due to peer pressure. Toward the end, he was smoking two packs of menthol cigarettes a day, he said.

“I think about where I might have been or where I might not have been if I had continued,” he said.

Even if the ordinance were to keep just 10 — or even one — child in the community from smoking, Baker said, “I think it’s well worth it.”

Kehr, who attended the meeting and spoke during the public forum, said the ordinance came after advocacy, education and years of work in the community.

“I’m so proud of the City Council,” she said. “They have consistently passed initiatives that help our community be healthy and thrive. … For those who voted for it, that’s what they felt that they were doing.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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