HIBBING — Amid statewide efforts to increase the minimum sales age for all tobacco products from 18 to 21, the Hibbing City Council is facing pressure from the Hibbing Chemical Health Coalition and the American Lung Association to take a side in the fight against the growing epidemic of teen vaping.
To date more than 485 cities in 29 states across the U.S. have enforced the national campaign Tobacco 21 — or T21 — ordinances. In November, Hermantown became the 15th city in the state and the first in St. Louis County to ban tobacco and vaping sales to anyone under 21 within city limits. The following month and just 75 miles southeast of Hibbing, the city of Duluth followed suit, becoming the second city countywide and the 23rd in the state.
Last month, Hibbing City Councilor Jay Hildenbrand introduced the subject during a Committee of the Whole meeting, at which point his fellow councilors heard from Lori Kolden and Jeff Vlatkovich, both longtime Hibbing Chemical Health Advisory Coalition members. The pair explained their partnering with Amanda Casady, a tobacco control program manager at the Duluth-based chapter of the American Lung Association, in hopes of making Hibbing the first Iron Range city to adapt the T21 campaign to raise the minimum age limit for tobacco products.
At that meeting, Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata expressed no qualms about voicing his strong opposition to banning cigarette sales to those under 21 except when it comes to vaping products.
Cannata — a cigarette smoker himself — reiterated that sentiment once again during Tuesday’s regular council meeting, lamenting that “city government has way more important things to do than this.”
While councilors debated breaking down the baseline T21 ordinance into a policy with language targeting only vaping products, media outlets like the Associated Press were breaking the news that a second person in the country has died from severe lung illness linked to vaping — the first death occurring in Illinois and the latest in Oregon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released a statement that there are currently more than 200 cases of respiratory illness under investigation that are possibly linked to e-cigarette, or vaping, products.
“Public health officials in Oregon said Wednesday that a person who recently died of a severe respiratory illness had used an electronic cigarette containing marijuana oil from a legal dispensary, the second death linked to vaping nationwide and the first tied to a vaping product bought at a pot shop,” the Associated Press reported.
At the Hibbing Council meeting Tuesday, Casady from the American Lung Association recommended the city council raise the minimum age for all tobacco products, including cigarettes and vaping. She explained that she reached out to the Public Health Law Center, which cautioned against the city’s intentions of targeting only vaping products. (Though not a councilor, Cannata is considered a member of the council and has power to vote on ordinances.)
“It does really alter the validity of the [T21] ordinance and that it does open up communities to potential litigation,” Casady said, before warning the city council of equal protection laws.
The goal, she continued, is the protection of the youth and there have been 15 confirmed cases of youth hospitalizations due to vaping in Minnesota alone. Just last week, she was approached by “countless” teachers about the epidemic during a professional development summit in Virginia, where more than 200 educators — including those from Hibbing — attended.
“Even as I got here today, I pulled up, I was walking in and there was a whole group of kids that could not have been older than high school right out [in] front of the [City] Hall here and they’re all vaping away,” Casady said.
Later in the meeting, City Administrator Tom Dicklich asked councilors for direction on drafting an ordinance, which, he insisted, they could take in whatever direction they chose.
Discussion burned through the evening as councilors weighed the options. They threw around ideas about possibly issuing penalties not only for businesses found selling vaping products to those under age 21, but also to anyone caught vaping underage, similar to an underage drinking penalty. There was also a degree of worry and skepticism about the ability of police fining people under 21 who vape on the edge of the city limits. As councilors got into the weeds about pros and cons and issues that may pop up down the line, Hibbing’s Chief of Police Steve Estey spoke up, reminding everyone, “I think our main objective here to try and project our youth, so whatever aside, let’s try to concentrate on that.”
Estey admitted that he doesn’t have the staff resources to heavily concentrate on the suppliers of vaping products, so he thought more research and options should be looked into if the objective is to create a resolution that will halt a larger epidemic affecting the youth in the community.
By the end of the meeting, most councilors appeared to be of the consensus that it would be prudent to take their time working through the issue rather than speeding ahead to pass something that may need to be revised later.
Councilor Jennifer Hoffman Saccoman made a motion to forge ahead and draft a vaping-only ordinance. Councilor John Schweiberger seconded the motion, which passed unanimously. City Attorney Andy Borland was asked to begin working on that draft.