County passes tobacco ‘law on a law’

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 27, 1999

The decision was unanimous: 5-0.

Friday, August 27, 1999

The decision was unanimous: 5-0.

Email newsletter signup

The new Mower County tobacco ordinance has become law.

It governs all areas of the county, where municipalities do not have their own ordinances. In effect, it is an ordinance to enforce existing tobacco sales laws, especially concerning sales to children and teenagers.

"Given the fact that nearly 30 percent of all Mower County 12th-graders admitted to weekly cigarette use in the 1995 survey and that tobacco use is the single-leading, but preventable cause of disease in the United States, plus the fact that it costs every resident $277 pay for tobacco-related health care concerns, this is a positive step in a direction that gets the entire community working together ," Margene Gunderson said.

Gunderson, director of Mower County Public Health, weighed the question – "Is the new county tobacco ordinance necessary?" – carefully before answering. When she did, it was with ample facts to support her assertion, that, yes, the new ordinance is needed.

Glen W. Jacobsen, Mower County’s chief deputy prosecutor, drafted the ordinance. Jacobsen and Gunderson were joined by Mower County Sheriff Barry J. Simonson and Mower County Auditor Woody Vereide at Tuesday’s county board meeting.

Vereide’s role will be to process license applications and Simonson’s will be to enforce the new law.

Critics say it is a "law on top of another law" and a redundancy, because it is already illegal to sell cigarettes to minors.

But there is one school of thought that says aggressive anti-smoking campaigns work and Oregon and California offer evidence of the same. The Center for Disease Control wants states anticipating money from the $250 billion settlement with tobacco companies to target the monies on health and anti-smoking programs.

Ironically, one person most directly affected by the new law, Gary Nemitz, owner of Nemitz’s in downtown Austin, the city’s premier newsstand and tobacco shop, had no comment Tuesday.

Nemitz, 5th district, voted with the four other county commissioners to approve the new county tobacco ordinance.

Privately in his store, he has other opinions reserved for those who ask and they aren’t favorable.

Many stores already secure their tobacco products behind lock-and-key, so it will be business as usual for them.

Gunderson believes the new ordinance will help teenage clerks, who may be tempted by their peers to sell cigarettes illegally. "Now, they have another reason to tell their peers they can’t sell them tobacco products," she said.

According to Gunderson, the tobacco ordinance is one method in policy development for dealing with the problem of under-age smokers. Mower County public health and Austin Medical Center continue to explore other measures to take to curb tobacco usage and Gunderson believes more education is needed and even counter-advertising to what tobacco companies are doing.

"This tobacco ordinance shouldn’t change the way retailers do business. It already is against the law to sell tobacco products to minors," she said. "It reinforces some of the things already in place; namely that tobacco products cannot be displayed out in the open, where minors would have immediate access to them."

"My hope is tobacco vendors will work together with everyone for a common purpose," she said.

Details of ordinance

According to Jacobsen, the ordinance is in response to a new statute adopted in 1997 and will not supersede any municipal tobacco ordinance.

The purpose is to regulate the sale, use and possession of tobacco and tobacco products by "enforcing and furthering existing laws."

Also, it is intended to protect minors from the "serious effects associated with the use of tobacco and tobacco products."

Lastly, it is designed to "further the official public policy of the state of Minnesota," which is to "prevent young people from starting to smoke."

Jacobsen went through the new ordinance page-by-page.

The so-called "law to enforce existing laws" is eight pages in length.

There will be annual compliance checks and all businesses, currently selling tobacco products, must obtain a license from the county. With the applications will come background checks and a fee for processing an issuing the county’s new license.

Jacobsen pointed out the new county law prohibits sales to any person under the age of 18 and by any type of vending machine.

In addition, it prohibits self-service merchandising of tobacco products. That means, the plastic display cases which allow for the access to tobacco products without first requesting it from a vendor is outlawed.

Also, there may be no sale of "loosies," or tobacco products lying within eyesight and reach of customers.

There is a separate section detailing "other illegal acts," such as minors having in their possession any tobacco or tobacco product.

Also, "No minor may smoke, chew, sniff or otherwise use any tobacco or tobacco product."

When violations, which are misdemeanors, are discovered, there is a process before a hearing officer, including an appeals opportunity.

The fines range from $75 to $150 for a first offense; $200 to $500 for a second offense; and $250 to $700 for a third or subsequent offense.

Also, a license can be revoked for repeated offenses.