NORTH MANKATO — More than 40 people went to a North Mankato City Council meeting Tuesday to support a North Mankato ordinance to raise the tobacco-selling age to 21.
They had doctors. They had medical experts. They had retired nurses, college students and even middle-schoolers tell council members to pass the ordinance.
"It is important that you raise the age to pay to 21 so that it's harder for teenagers under the age of 21 to get tobacco products," said Anna Leafblad, an eighth-grader at Dakota Meadows Middle School.
Leafblad and her friends said they've often seen their peers smoking in bathrooms at Dakota Meadows. Area health experts say up to 13 percent of boys younger than 18 in Nicollet County have used tobacco products over the past 30 days, according to a 2017 study.
Nicollet County Public Health Director Mary Hildebrandt expressed concern over tobacco companies targeting teens who can get 18-year-old friends to buy them e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. And Griffin Goode, a Minnesota State University student, testified he started smoking at 14 years old in large part because he could get cigarettes from an 18-year-old friend.
"Not many 14-year-olds or 16-year-olds are friends with many 21-year-olds," Goode said. "It would be much harder to get those cigarettes from somebody that's that much older than you are."
Though supporters lauded the ordinance for its potential health benefits, critics say the ordinance would harm local businesses and infringe upon a person's rights.
Daric Zimmerman, a real estate and development director for Staples Enterprises, told the council the ordinance would likely force customers away from the gas stations Staples Enterprises operates to nearby shops in places like South Bend Township.
"It significantly hurts our ability to do business and compete on a level playing field," he said.
Former Council member Kim Spears said the ordinance takes away a person's choice and erodes an individual's responsibility to choose to smoke for themselves.
North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said the council will vote on the ordinance at its Feb. 5 meeting.
Four out of five council members support the ordinance, including Bob Freyberg. Freyberg had initially opposed the ordinance but said Tuesday night he had a change of heart the week prior to the council meeting.
"I believe in a lot of rights," Freyberg said. "But I think doing what's right in your own heart trumps the other rights."
Only Council member Billy Steiner opposes the ordinance, as he also believes a person should have the right to buy tobacco if they're 18.