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Otter Tail first county in Minnesota to raise tobacco purchasing age

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Otter Tail County on Tuesday, Nov. 13, became the first county in Minnesota to raise the legal purchasing age for tobacco products from 18 to 21.

In a unanimous 4-0 vote, the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance commonly known as Tobacco 21, or T21.

The new regulations will begin in January, on a phased-in basis. Starting Jan. 1, 18-year-olds will no longer be able to legally purchase tobacco products in Otter Tail County. One year later, in January 2020, the ban will apply to people 18 and 19 years of age. And by January 2021, it will apply to everyone under age 21. Any person found in violation of the ordinance will be subject to fines that increase with each offense.

Though the T21 ordinance has faced some public resistance since it was first proposed in April, no one spoke out against it at Tuesday’s meeting.

Opponents have cited concerns about how the ordinance will be enforced, and how it might impact local tourism. There have also been questions about the law’s effectiveness, as younger tobacco users can still cross county lines to buy tobacco products.

But proponents of the ordinance believe it will reduce smoking, vaping and other tobacco usage among people under the age of 21, which they say is crucial to the prevention of chronic tobacco-related diseases like hypertension and heart disease.

They’re also hoping the ordinance will ultimately reach beyond Otter Tail County’s borders, serving as an inspiration to other county and state lawmakers to enact T21 ordinances of their own.

“The passing of this ordinance helps to send a message to our community that we want to change the norm about tobacco use and nicotine delivery devices, in that we believe those products should only be used by persons over the age of 21,” said Otter Tail County Public Health Director Diane Thorson. “Our goal is that, by making it a little more difficult for people to purchase the product, it will reduce use among persons under the age of 18 in our school settings.”

At least two other counties in Minnesota are looking into adopting similar ordinances, and 15 cities have already done so. As more and more communities get on board, Thorson said, “our biggest hope is that...it will send a message to our state legislature, (and a T21 ordinance) will actually be put in place statewide.”

Otter Tail County reporter Tom Hintgen contributed to this report.

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