OLIVIA — The Renville County Board of Commissioners is delaying plans to hold a public hearing on proposed changes to the county’s tobacco ordinance.

The commissioners agreed at their meeting Tuesday to postpone a planned April 13 hearing until differences can be resolved on changes being proposed for the ordinance. A tobacco committee and the Renville Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Tobacco have proposed changes to conform to the new state and federal laws prohibiting sales to individuals under age 21.

At the heart of the issue for Renville County is how to find a balance between competing desires to keep tobacco out of the hands of those under 21, and not harm the businesses selling those products.

“I’m struggling a little here,” said Commissioner Randy Kramer, who expressed concerns about some of the changes being proposed to the ordinance. “We’re using the hammer approach here instead of the carrot.”

The proposed ordinance presented to the commissioners would not fine store clerks under age 21 for selling tobacco to minors, but it would fine the store. Clerks who are 21 and over would be fined $50 for an offense and the licensee would be fined $400. The $400 fine for a first violation by the store compares to a $300 fine that the state has adopted. Second and third violations by a store would bring $600 and $1,000 penalties.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The proposed ordinance would also reduce the distance that businesses selling tobacco products must be from youth-oriented facilities from the current 1,000 feet to 500 feet. Existing businesses would be grandfathered in.

The 1,000-foot restriction came under criticism in 2017, when it would have prevented two stores proposed for development in the community of Renville from selling tobacco products. The city of Renville adopted its own tobacco ordinance in place of the county’s ordinance to allow the Casey’s General Store and Dollar Store to sell tobacco products.

In discussions on Tuesday, the commissioners said they favored keeping the fine for the first violation at $300, and not raising it to $400. Commissioner Greg Snow, a member of the tobacco committee, said he believed that keeping the fine at $300 would be supported by committee members as well.

The commissioners also discussed the possibility of offering to purchase scanners to read identification cards for businesses when a tobacco sale violation occurs, but with this requirement: If a second violation occurs, the business would reimburse the county for the scanner as well as pay a fine.

Annie Tepfer, who leads the Renville Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drugs, told the commissioners that there are growing concerns about an increased use of vaping products by high school students in the county. The alliance was not able to conduct a survey of student tobacco use last year due to the pandemic, but the ordinance cites a rise statewide in high school student use of tobacco products by more than 27 percent.

Kramer and Commissioner Doug Erickson said they believe that, in most cases, sales of tobacco products to minors are made by mistake. They expressed concerns about harming the very businesses they are awarding grants to help through the economic losses inflicted by the pandemic.

Tepfer and Jill Bruns, public health director, said the businesses and their employees are all provided training on how to prevent sales to underage customers. Tepfer said it takes both enforcement and education to be effective. “They go hand in hand,” she said.

She also stated that there have been problem store clerks who “who really don’t care too much” about the prohibitions against sales to youth.

Commissioner Dave Hamre expressed his reservations about going soft on enforcement.

“There’s right and wrong, black and right and rules and laws for a reason,” he said. “(We) need to be compassionate, mistakes are made (but) there also needs to be some consequences,” he said. “Everybody can’t feel good all the time.”

Bruns said she would survey licensed tobacco sellers in the county on whether they currently have and are using scanners to determine the age of tobacco customers. The new state law requires that clerks request identification from anyone they believe is age 30 or under.

The committee members said they would review the proposed ordinance to address the concerns raised and bring it back to the commissioners before a hearing date is set.

“I’d rather iron out the problems now before the public hearing,” said Bruns.