The movement to raise the age at which young adults can purchase tobacco and vapor products traded ground this week as two key cities held hearings about the proposed "T21" ordinances. Bloomington, in the metro area, voted unanimously to approve the age hike, while things became much more complicated in central Minnesota as the St Cloud city council approved T21 on a slim 4-3 vote, but the Mayor says he will veto the measure.
Bloomington remains an Island
Bloomington Minnesota was the first city in the state to restrict device sampling in existing vape stores. They became an island in policy, and as of this posting remain the only city in Minnesota to do so.
It was a chilly November night as the city council chambers filled to standing room only before the meeting came to order. T21 advocates clad in matching green t-shirts, sponsored by ClearWay MN, and accompanied by various doctors, concerned mothers, children from elementary through high school, and of even a newly wed who spoke of her father missing the wedding thanks to the terrible consequences of smoking. Mayor Gene Winstead managed to keep the anecdotal testimony to a minimum. Most of the pro-T21 testimony focused on the danger of cigarettes and youth access, with only a couple of speakers demonizing vaping directly. One very young child looked to her mother for approval after finishing the prepared speech she read to the council. The main contention was that senior high students are friends with 18-20 year olds who can purchase tobacco products for them.
The other half of the room, near the back in most cases, also wanted to limit youth access to tobacco products, but their solution came in a different fashion: education and harm reduction. They voiced concern for those who already started smoking, and would be left without access to smoke free alternatives. Ex-smokers, vaping advocates, and local vape shop owners pleaded for more forward thinking policy than an outright ban. They pointed to education campaigns like the UK's "Stoptober" which promotes vaping as a way to kick the habit. They argued that putting vapor products under the same restrictions as combustible tobacco sends the wrong message, may actually end up increasing the number of smokers or at the very least prevent smokers who want to quit from doing so for years. There were of course mentions of reductions in business but the main concern stemmed from the message it sends and how the city should treat proven and recognized harm reduction and smoking cessation tools like vaping.
The language was notably different this time around from when the council met to discuss sampling. This time there was recognition of the benefits of vaping. The mayor noted that it reduces harm but followed it up by saying "harm is still there." Indeed the entire council seemed unified in the belief that vaping was a viable alternative to cigarettes. "We're behind in doing good research on the vaping [subject]" commented council member Jon Oleson, who's district included the two well established vape stores in the city. He may have proposed an amendment under different circumstances and political climates. He called the city's initial reaction to vaping "Knee-jerky."
The unanimous decision came around 10pm. Bloomington became the first city in the state to raise the age to purchase with established stores in the city. They remain an Island. The only amendment was an unclear directive from another council member about research into education and looking into online sale regulations. It failed to get a second, and died before anyone understood what was being proposed. The green shirts exited and posed for victory photos as the vaping advocates filed out into the cold.
Cloudy results in central Minnesota
Things were much different a little ways northwest. In St. Cloud there were protesters outside city hall holding signs reading "Vote NO on T21" The council chambers are much larger, and include stadium seating. T21 opponents lined one side of the room, with banners and signs making their points clear as day. In this region, the T21 supporters wore bright blue shirts, grouping together on the other side of the room. They, too, had children with prepared remarks along side a swath of concerned parents and some healthcare providers making similar arguments to those in Bloomington. More than 40 people spoke that night; a mix of opponents and supporters.
The council voted a very close 4-3 to adopt T21, but MayorDave Kleis is having none of it.
"I can't support it, and I won't sign it," he said. He is expected to veto the measure, stating back in July :
"We pick an age which we determine an individual's maturity, and it's in the Constitution now where it's 18 ... If we feel someone is mature enough and smart enough to make that decision, and if they're old enough to fight for the country, I think we have to be consistent in that age."
St. cloud is one of the largest cities in central Minnesota and could influence other cities in the region.
The day after the hearings, Bloomington held elections for numerous city council seats. Most of the sitting council members were defeated. Oleson, who's district includes those two vape shops, lost by only 6 votes. The other two, who the night prior, had practically kissed hard-line groups like Clearway's feet, also lost their seats. One had been on the council for many years.
Support from vapers could very well have changed the outcome of some of these elections. Harm reduction advocates look to the future of vaping regulation as more research supports vaping as a harm reduction and smoking cessation method, and hope policy steers towards more education, rather than restriction.