Pequot Lakes Police Chief Eric Klang has a goal to make Pequot Lakes the first city in Crow Wing County to raise the tobacco age to 21.
“I want us to be the first to move on this and to change the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21,” Klang said.
And he wants it done soon.
“I don't want to kick this can down the road any farther,” Klang said. “I want to get this thing stopped right away. I want to make it happen this year yet.”
Klang isn't alone. Across Minnesota, more than 50 cities have already raised the tobacco buying age to 21, and legislators at the state level are considering the increase as well. The move is receiving support from surprising sources as well.
“I've gotten a lot of support from the convenience places I've talked to and I have support from the military, and Philip Morris, the tobacco company,” Klang said. “They are supporting this change to 21 as well. I don't want to sit around and talk about it. I want it done. We need to get it done today and not months from now or years later. This is a serious problem.”
As one could probably predict, the impetus for this change is largely the proliferation of electronic cigarettes in schools and the growing number of vaping-related illnesses.
“I've seen a big increase in the number of young people vaping,” Klang said. “There are a lot of eighth graders. It's doubled from last year in the number of users. That's very concerning to me. It should be concerning to parents as well. These things are difficult to detect for parents. There are not typical smells associated with it or typical devices associated with it. They can hide them very easily. A lot of them look like cell phones or USB drives or there is generally very little bulge in pockets so you can't see what's in there. Yeah, I'm very concerned about it.”
Tackling vaping has been a challenge so far, but Klang and authorities from the Minnesota Department of Health believe increasing the purchasing age could make it harder for minors to get friends to buy for them.
“I think it's very easy for 17 and 18 year olds to be friends and for a 17 year old or 18 year old to have a younger brother or sibling and they can go out and buy them one,” Klang said. “I think there is a connection or access between the 18 year old and the early teens. I think if we change it to 21, the chances diminish quite a bit for a 21 year old being friends with someone who is 17 or 18. Their group of friends are different. I think that could limit the number of people vaping.”
In January, Klang discussed his idea with members of Crow Wing Energized, which has a tobacco coalition. The idea had a wide range of support, but the county level group seemed to believe it was best if smaller jurisdictions, in this case municipalities, took the lead first. The idea is that counties would follow, and then the state.
Klang hopes others will follow Pequot Lakes' lead if the city raises the tobacco buying age to 21.
"That's typically how it happens,” Klang said. “We'll start these ordinances and eventually they spread throughout the state and the state says, 'Hey, this is probably a good idea.' We're going to work on this thing and do it countywide then the counties jump on board then it goes statewide.
As always, there are likely to be detractors. Among them are those who argue that the tobacco purchasing age should at least match with the minimum age of military enlistment. Klang views the increased age as a way to protect those soldiers and reduce lifelong health issues in the future.
“They always say if you're old enough to go and fight in the war you should be old enough to buy smokes or whatever, but I know the No. 1 cost to the Veterans Administrations hospitals is directly related to smoking,” Klang said. “I think if you went back in time and told them their No. 1 cost in 2019 was going to be because of smoking, the military would have had different thoughts on that than packing MREs with cigarettes.”
He suggests people can't always see the benefits or results of certain government regulation. For those who just oppose further government regulation, he compares it to seat belt laws, which had a more visible impact.
“I remember when they wanted to make it mandatory to wear a seat belt, I wondered why they were making people have to wear seat belts and it should be their choice and they should be doing it on their own,” Klang said. “(I felt) the government shouldn't be telling them what to do on that. Then a year later I'm going to crashes and there's no blood and guts anymore. There isn't all this death. I'm thinking, I like going to car accidents where people aren't dead and there's not guts and gore. That weighs heavily on an officer.”
If Pequot Lakes increases the age to buy tobacco, at this point Brainerd and Baxter appear to be the only Crow Wing County cities currently discussing similar ordinances.
“For Nisswa, at this point and time we've had a couple short discussions, but nothing substantial,” said Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max. “That's not to say that won't continue.”
“I have heard nothing about it,” said Crosslake City Clerk Char Nelson.
Likewise, the county has yet to take up discussion on the topic.
“I know on behalf of Crow Wing County that we are not having discussion on that at this time,” said Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle. “I'm not sure if a county has the authority to do so. That isn't to say we can or can't. It's to say I don't know. Because we haven't been asked to research it, I don't know the answer to that question.”
The next step for Klang is to bring the plan in front of the city council in November. Klang said the Minnesota Department of Health already has ordinance examples available that the city can use.