MOORHEAD — Cities and counties in the region and across the country have passed laws to raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy tobacco products. But what about the Fargo-Moorhead area?
Nothing immediate is planned for either side of the Red River, but changes to the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products — referred to as Tobacco 21, or T21 law — appear more likely to happen in Moorhead than Fargo.
Thirty-one counties and cities in Minnesota have already adopted the T21 law, including the counties of Otter Tail, Pope and Beltrami and the city of Bemidji. However, no North Dakota cities or counties have done so, despite concerns about e-cigarette use at schools that "have really struggled this year to monitor and manage the use of these devices," said Pat McKone, the American Lung Association's senior director in the upper Midwest.
"With the current epidemic of tobacco use by teens in the forms of vaping and Juuling, there is discussion across the country on strategies to take these devices out of the hands of youth and one important strategy is raising the age to 21," McKone said.
In North Dakota's most populous county, Cass, there's been no discussion about changing the law, according to County Administrator Robert Wilson.
“I have not heard anyone in Cass County entertain the topic one way or the other,” Wilson said. “If there were someone or some group advocating for it, then we would look into it, and I would see if there was any kind of commission appetite to take action — if there's even a role for the commission there. Without that initial inquiry, request, or advocacy, it's just not a road that I need to go down.”
A national movement
Last month, a bipartisan bill called the Tobacco to 21 Act was introduced in Congress to make 21 the minimum age nationwide to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
Twelve states have already raised the age to 21 and so have more than 450 counties and cities in the U.S., according to the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. Some retailers, including Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, have stopped selling tobacco products to shoppers under 21.
McKone says it is within the jurisdiction of cities and counties to pass T21 laws.
However, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said it's not entirely clear if counties and cities in North Dakota could enact such laws because of the home rule charter. The charter allows them to enact ordinances in some circumstances, but they cannot supersede state law, he said. Burdick said he has reached out to the North Dakota Attorney General's Office for an opinion.
Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig said he does not support raising the age because 18-year-olds can already vote and serve in the military, so it would be “odd if we were to go that far” as to restrict people that age from buying tobacco products.
“Minnesota can do what they want. I don't hold anything against them. I understand the intent,” Gehrig said. “But it’s not something I think the government should be doing.”
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney had a different take on T21.
"In my roles as a dad, physician and Mayor, I’m fully supportive of anything that discourages smoking. It is addictive, dangerous and adversely impacts millions of Americans. This is an important topic in Fargo, in North Dakota and all throughout America," he said in a statement to The Forum.
"I feel we need to continue working towards a comprehensive approach to reduce smoking in our youth. While increasing the age to purchase cigarettes may offer some impact, it needs to be considered as part of a unified public health response. This is not a silver bullet and it is critically important that we don’t lose sight of the many factors which contribute to youth smoking.”
Momentum in Minnesota
In Minnesota, there continues to be interest in implementing the law. On Friday, May 10, legislators and anti-tobacco activists gathered at the state Capitol to call for action on Tobacco 21.
Moorhead City Councilor Sara Watson Curry said she attended a presentation on the topic and anticipates that “the conversation will eventually be on our doorstep” because other Minnesota cities have passed T21 laws. Though, she said education is the only action at this point.
Jason McCoy, tobacco prevention coordinator with Clay County Public Health, said he's working with Wilkin County where there will be a public hearing in June to see if it will be the next county to move forward with T21 law. He worked with Otter Tail County to help change the law that went into effect there Jan. 1.
“I'm positive that we’ll see some change coming here in 2019 or 2020,” he said of Moorhead and Clay County, where some schools are coming together to look at the law.