Well over 100 people filled Hermantown City Council chambers past overflowing on Monday for an impassioned debate over banning tobacco sales to those younger than 21.
It was the first of two public hearings planned before the council will vote on the ban. The second hearing will take place Nov. 5, Mayor Wayne Boucher said.
No one argued on behalf of continuing to sell cigarettes to 18-year-olds. What divided the crowd was the question of whether a ban should include e-cigarettes — devices used for vaping. Like warring families at a wedding, they largely gathered on opposite sides of the room. Vaping supporters, wearing gray T-shirts with “Tobacco Harm Reduction Saves Lives” on the back, stood and sat across the aisle from community members whose T-shirts read “Raise the age, raise a tobacco-free generation.”
Representatives of both sides spoke fervently but listened to each other quietly and politely, as did Boucher and his four council colleagues.
Among the first of at least a score of speakers were a series of young men in gray T-shirts with similar stories. Several said they had lost family members to smoking-related cancer and believed they’d chosen a healthier alternative.
“I started smoking at age 15,” said Daniel Enders, 19. “I smoked about a pack a day, sometimes more. … Since switching over to vaping right around 18, I have saved hundreds of dollars a year — thousands. I no longer am coughing up disgusting phlegm. I no longer have shortness of breath.”
Jay Ferguson, a physician assistant in family practice at Essentia Health who spoke later, said he was dismayed by those accounts.
“My heart breaks … when they tell you that they started a nicotine habit when they were really young and then switched to another product and convinced themselves that it’s now making them healthy,” Ferguson said. “We’re listening to them saying, ‘I don’t smoke anymore, I vape.’ It’s nicotine, the most addictive substance we know of.”
But Brian Annis, owner of the Lake Effect Vapor shop on Maple Grove Road, argued that his customers were testifying about what they knew to be true.
Turning to a contingent of medical professionals, Annis said, “I have countless testimonies out there. I’m sorry that you have a problem with them saying they don’t smoke anymore because they vape, but they don’t. And it’s adding years to their lives.”
Annis also said he and others in his industry want to keep vaping out of the hands of minors and out of schools.
But that doesn’t seem to be happening. A display provided by the American Lung Association at the entryway to the chambers made the claim that one in five Hermantown High School students vapes.
Amanda Casady, manager of health promotions in Duluth for the organization, said that number came from the Minnesota Student Survey of 2016 and applied specifically to Hermantown. She said she recently had given presentations to three ninth-grade classes in Hermantown High School and could see students surreptitiously vaping as she spoke.
“To me, that’s the definition of addiction,” Casady said. “As I’m there saying, ‘Don’t do this, it’s harmful for you,’ and they’re just doing it.”