Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Menthol cigarettes, flavored vaping juice with names like “cotton candy” and “dragon banana berry,” and flavored chewing tobacco and cigars are off limits and off the shelves after the Moorhead City Council voted seven-to-one to ban their sale on Oct. 12.
In August, the council weighed a measure that would city regulation into line with the federal and Minnesota Tobacco-21 laws banning the sale of tobacco products to customers under the age of 21. Several council members argued that it should go farther by enacting a total ban on the sale of flavored vaping products, flavored tobacco or both. After heated discussion, the board voted by a margin of six to two to direct the city manager to draw up the more far-reaching measure debated and ultimately approved last week.
In often-emotional testimony, advocates lined up to make their case that the ban would not only reduce tobacco use by teens, as the limit on sales would achieve, but also remove elements of tobacco marketing designed specifically to draw young users into what was introduced as a less-harmful alternative to lighting up cigarettes. Vape juices generally contain nicotine, the same highly addictive chemical that hooks smokers on tobacco, along with appealing flavorings.
The council received letters from more than a dozen health- and education-related organizations, ranging from the American Lung and Heart Associations to the Minnesota Medical Association, Sanford and Essentia hospitals and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Many cited the well-documented campaign by the tobacco companies to counter the trend toward fewer smokers by developing appealing, harmless-sounding e-cigarettes that, regardless, pose the same addictive power and potential health problem related to both ingredients and the technology itself, in which liquid is vaporized and inhaled deep into the lungs.
Several organizations representing diverse constituencies pointed out that menthol products are disproportionately used by their communities.
Two women were on hand to argue against the proposed law, calling it a matter of overregulation and overreach. One supported raising the legal age to 21 without the ban on flavored products, calling it a matter of personal choice.
Council member Matt Gilbertson echoed their position. He asked Clay Public Health tobacco prevention coordinator Jason McCoy about the prevalence of use of tobacco products in Moorhead versus Fargo; McCoy replied that recent surveys show 18% of local high school students are used, compared to 22% in Fargo. Gilbertson said he looked forward to future statistics to see whether the Moorhead ban has any effect whatsoever on those numbers.
“You can’t regulate behavior. Period,” he asserted. “All you’re doing here is making it a little less convenient and driving them across the border. Meanwhile, we not only lose the sales tax. Local businesses will also lose sales of pop, snacks … right down the line.”
Fellow council member Steve Lindaas disagreed, citing the goal of harm reduction. “Yes, it’s hard to regulate behavior, but we can nudge it. This is what our community believes. We love our children.”
Council member Chuck Hendrickson, who had voted against moving forward with the flavored-tobacco measure in August, shared perhaps the most moving statement of the evening. “You know I was against this in the past, but I am changing my position,” he told fellow members. “I watched my dad gasp for air in his last days after smoking for 60 years. In my heart, I am going to support this. If we can stop one child, I’m in favor of it. I miss Dad. Smoking killed him.”
Moorhead is at least the 23rd Minnesota city to have banned flavored tobacco products.