MANKATO — A preview of the upcoming public hearings on raising the tobacco-purchase age to 21 was provided by the Mankato-North Mankato Intergovernmental Committee Tuesday night.
"As far as I'm concerned we're doing social engineering," said North Mankato Council member Bob Freyberg, adding that legal age to purchase nicotine-related products should be set by the Legislature. "It's a state issue."
"But Robert, you have to remember we were told the same thing with the indoor smoking ordinance," Mankato Council member Mark Frost said, recalling his city's early advocacy for banning smoking in indoor public spaces 11 years ago. "It became a state issue because of our leadership."
That was different because smoking in bars and restaurants impacted the health of non-smokers breathing second-hand smoke, said Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson.
"It was a general health issue inside a business," Anderson said, pointing out that the state — not local government — sets the age for everything from writing a will to making life-and-death medical decisions. And that age is 18.
But there are various ages where rights are granted or denied to young people, countered North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen.
People can get married at 16, vote at 18, drink at 21 and rent a car at 25, Dehen said, referencing studies that suggest the portion of the brain governing rational judgement isn't fully developed until well beyond age 18.
"They say you don't get logic until you're 25," Dehen said.
While the Intergovernmental Committee — made up of two members of each council — was deadlocked Tuesday night, the broader councils appear supportive of joining Edina and St. Louis Park as Minnesota's first cities to raise the age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes.
"I anticipate we'll set a public hearing at our meeting on Monday," Dehen said, suggesting that Aug. 28 is the most likely date for the hearing and a vote on the ordinance.
Mankato has already set a public hearing for the same date, with a vote to follow and a 30-day waiting period before the higher tobacco purchase age could be enforced.
Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said he would include the issue on the agenda of the council's Aug. 14 meeting, reporting on the discussion of the Intergovernmental Committee and the action of North Mankato on Aug. 7. A majority of the Mankato Council has indicated a willingness to at least bring the issue to the public hearing stage, and it's likely the decision wouldn't change unless North Mankato reversed course.
Proponents boosting the legal age of tobacco purchases say their top priority is reducing the likelihood of younger teenagers getting cigarettes from relatives and acquaintances who are 18, 19 or 20 years old.
From the start of the discussion in June, the two cities have aimed to move on the issue only if there was consensus on both sides of the river — because unity was necessary to make it effective and because a disparity in purchase ages would create winners and losers among tobacco retailers. Tuesday's Intergovernmental Committee meeting aimed to confirm that both cities were on the same path, and a comparison of proposed ordinances showed that they were.
(Mankato staff drafted a proposed ordinance last month that also banned possession of tobacco — not just purchases — by young adults. North Mankato quickly objected to that, as did Mankato council members, and that provision has been dropped.)
Because neither city appears willing to pass an ordinance without the other — Mankato's discussion on Aug. 14 may also involve gauging support on the council to provide assurance to North Mankato prior to Aug. 28 that it retains majority support.
The North Mankato Council has already done that. At a work session two weeks ago, Council members Diane Norland and Jim Whitlock joined Dehen in indicating strong support for the ordinance. Only Freyberg was solidly opposed, with Council member Billy Steiner saying he was conflicted on the issue.
And Freyberg doesn't expect much backing at the public hearing, despite his vocal support for preserving the rights of 18-,19- and 20-year-olds to make their own choices about tobacco use.
"Not one apathetic individual has contacted me," Freyberg said of young adults in the area. "I'm sitting here fighting this battle and I'm like, 'Who for?'"