No to tobacco

It’s said that laws are like sausages.

You are better off not seeing them made.

The adage does not fit perfectly for recent Litchfield City Council debate over an ordinance to raise the minimum age for purchase of tobacco and vaping products. But it works pretty well.

The debate, which began in April with a suggestion by Council Member Darlene Kotelnicki that the city’s ordinance might need updating, has been confusing, decidedly undecided and, we have to believe, frustrating to people on all sides.

And the city still does not have a new ordinance.

The existing ordinance allows tobacco and e-cigarette sales to anyone 18 years or older. One side of the issue — convenience store operators and others who sell the products — must be pleased with the status quo. Oh, and those who believe that government should keep its nose out of, well, basically anything having to do with business or private individuals’ decisions.

The other side — those who believe that a higher purchase age could help reduce the number of people who start on the road to nicotine addiction at a young age — can’t be pleased. Especially when the goal — an ordinance calling for the tobacco purchase age to be raised to 21 — seemed so close at hand.

But both sides must be at least somewhat frustrated by the indecision of the City Council.

Let’s review. The City Council in April asked for help in reworking its tobacco ordinance, and received input from Meeker-McLeod-Sibley Public Health services, as well as local educators.

But a decision was delayed while City Council waited to see if the Minnesota Legislature might address the Tobacco 21 issue. The Minnesota House passed a bill increasing the purchase age to 21, but the Senate took no action.

With no statewide action, the City Council took up the issue again, reluctantly in some cases. But the matter seemed to gain some momentum and a public hearing was set for Aug. 19 to act on the ordinance.

With a room packed with both tobacco retailers and Tobacco 21 supporters, including about a dozen middle and high school students, council members debated, suggested changes and finally approved, on a 5-2 vote, the ordinance. It had been watered down some, to allow people 18 and older to sell tobacco products and removing the distance restrictions between sellers of tobacco. But a new ordinance seemed on track to becoming reality.

A second reading was necessary at the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, but second readings most often are approved.

Except this one wasn’t. It became obvious shortly after the council arrived at the agenda item that “most often” would not apply in this case. By the end of the discussion, there was a dramatic, emphatic retreat from the bold move of two weeks before.

Had it approved the ordinance, Litchfield City Council would have joined about 40 counties and municipalities around the state in raising the tobacco age to 21. Instead, members issued a unanimous rebuke of their decision two weeks previous.

What happened? Council members offered many concerns, including that they hadn’t had enough time to consider the ordinance, or they worried about unintended consequences of the ordinance. Meanwhile, they continued to offer their support of efforts to reduce tobacco and e-cigarette use.

Mayor Keith Johnson offered the resolution killing the second reading. He also asked that the issue be added as a workshop topic to the next City Council agenda.

The original updated ordinance was a good one. It had its detractors, and we might even sympathize with some of the arguments against raising the tobacco purchase age to 21. But the fact is, tobacco and e-cigarette use is a public health issue.

Clearway 21, a proponent of Tobacco 21, says that research shows more than 95 percent of adult smokers started smoking before the age of 21. It also has said that raising the purchase age is effective in reducing teen access to tobacco products. We have seen in recent weeks numerous accounts of teens becoming seriously ill due to e-cigarette use.

How long will the Litchfield City Council debate whether or not it’s time for a change?

The faint of heart might want to avert their eyes as this sausage — er, ordinance — continues to be made.

Brent Schacherer is publisher of the Hutchinson Leader and Litchfield Independent Review.

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