Minimum age to buy tobacco products in St. Louis Park increases to 21 on Oct. 1

The ability of adults under the age of 21 to buy tobacco products in St. Louis Park will go up in smoke as of Oct. 1.

On that date, the city will increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 years of age to 21 years of age.

The new ordinance will also increase penalties for businesses that sell tobacco products to an underage person, with a first violation leading to a $500 fine, a second violation within three years leading to a $1,000 fine and a one-day license suspension and a third violation within three years leading to a $2,000 fine and a 30-day license suspension. The previous suspension for a third violation had been three days. A fourth violation within three years will continue to lead to license revocation.

The council also repealed several aspects of its tobacco ordinance. The council repealed a section that stated that minors could not possess tobacco, tobacco-related devices or electronic delivery devices. The council repealed another section that stated that minors would create a violation if they smoked, chewed, sniffed or otherwise used tobacco, tobacco-related devices or electronic delivery devices. The city code was amended to remove a petty misdemeanor penalty for anyone under the age of 18 who possessed, smoked, chewed, ingested or attempted to purchase tobacco or related devices.

However, the council updated provisions that will make it a misdemeanor to sell tobacco or related devices to a person under the age of 21 or to furnish such products to a person younger than 21. Subsequent violations can result in gross misdemeanor charges. The council also updated a petty misdemeanor charge for anyone under the age of 21 who sells, furnishes or gives away tobacco products except as an employee of a licensed business.

Finalized without comment

The council took final action on the ordinance on its consent agenda, in which all members present vote unanimously to approve a series of actions simultaneously. The council voted 5-0 to approve the consent agenda, with Mayor Jake Spano and Councilmember Tim Brausen absent.

Other items on the consent agenda ranged from an extension of the licensed premises of Copperwing Distillery for one day Saturday, Aug. 12, to a contract with AECOM for nearly $333,000 for professional services from AECOM relating to St. Louis Park’s closed Water Treatment Plant No. 4.

Spano and Brausen were among council members supporting tobacco ordinance changes during an initial 6-1 vote June 26. Councilmember Steve Hallfin opposed the ordinance during the initial vote, but he voted in favor of the consent agenda July 17. Although people sat in the front row wearing shirts that read “TOBACCO 21” during the vote, council members did not mention the tobacco ordinance during the meeting.

Hallfin later said he had not changed his position since the initial vote and wished he had voted to pull the approval from the consent agenda.

“I was a little frustrated with myself that I didn’t pull it off,” he said two days after the vote. “I said, ‘Fine, put it on consent. It’s a foregone conclusion. My vote’s not really going to change anything. It’s going to get approved.”

He acknowledged that he voted in favor of the consent agenda that included the final action on the ordinance.

“Hindsight being what it was, I should have pulled it off, but I didn’t want to rehash it again,” Hallfin said.

He indicated his position is related to his status as a veteran.

“I just feel like if you’re old enough to make decisions for your life like going into the military and putting yourself in harm’s way for this country, when you come back here, home, you should still be able to make decisions on your personal rights and freedoms, whether you want to do things that are bad for you or not,” Hallfin said.

He said he has a similar view relating to the minimum age to purchase alcohol. The drinking age became 21 when he was 19, allowing him to be grandfathered in during the period of his military service that preceded his 21st birthday, he recalled.

“I was legal at 19, but some of my friends were not,” Hallfin said. “I believe an 18-year-old should be able to have a beer, so I’m consistent with that. That law was settled long before I had anything to do with it, but I disagree with it.”

Hallfin said that once someone reaches the age of majority, it becomes a personal freedom issue for him.

“I hate tobacco products,” Hallfin said. “I abhor them. I do. I hate them. But at what point do we say a legal product is a legal product for the people who are adults?”

A supporter’s view

However, Councilmember Sue Sanger agreed with the council majority that the city should increase the age to purchase tobacco products. Sanger raised the issue last year prior to learning that the Edina City Council was considering the same action, she said.

St. Louis Park became the second city in the state to approve a minimum age change for tobacco after the Edina council approved its ordinance.

The new St. Louis Park ordinance will make it more inconvenient for teenagers to purchase tobacco products, which could lead more teenagers to decide not to begin smoking, Sanger said the day after the council approved the ordinance. This would be helpful for their own health and prevent secondhand smoke to people around them, she said.

Additionally, she said the ordinance could help build momentum for the State Legislature to approve a statewide law to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 throughout Minnesota.

Sanger said Robbinsdale and other Hennepin County communities may consider similar provisions.

“It is a concern that some teenagers may be able to go to a different community and buy tobacco products, but passing this ordinance will make it much less convenient for them to do so and thus presumably cut down on the number of teenagers who gain access to tobacco products,” Sanger said. “I also am hopeful that other communities pass the same kind of ordinance so we would at least have a regional basis – a consistent sale age.”

Sanger said she has not seen any concrete steps taken at the Legislature for a statewide law to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products, but she pointed out that a statewide law that banned smoking inside bars and restaurants won state approval following local bans.

The Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota supported the ordinance change, but Sanger said she already had concerns relating to tobacco products.

“I have personally seen smoking to be a large public health problem since I was a teenager,” Sanger said. “I have certainly heard concerns about students being able to buy tobacco products, particularly flavored tobacco products very close to school and home.”

The council is discussing a possible ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products.

“That is a possibility, but we haven’t yet reached any conclusions about those options,” Sanger said.

Hallfin indicated he supported restrictions relating to flavored tobacco.

“I’m fine with us getting rid of the flavored stuff because I do agree that that’s how the tobacco companies are trying to entice the children to smoke, by getting the fruity flavors in there,” Hallfin said. “We’re still studying that.”

Hallfin said he considered comments from representatives from Holiday Stationstores, a retailers association and the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce opposed to city changes related to tobacco.

“I told them that I agree with you on the 21 thing; I don’t agree with them on the flavored (tobacco),” Hallfin said.

Sanger said most residents who have contacted her or who appeared at a public hearing supported the minimum age change but some residents and retailers have opposed the measure.

“I think that is just a different philosophical point of view,” Sanger said. “I understand where Councilmember Hallfin is coming from on that, but I think that concern is outweighed by the significant public health aspects of making it much more difficult for teenagers to purchase tobacco products.”