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A proposed St. Paul law raising the tobacco purchasing age would penalize retailers for selling to customers under 21, but not the customers.

Under an early version of the ordinance, people under 21 who bought or possessed tobacco or tobacco-related devices, including e-cigarettes, would have faced petty misdemeanor charges. City Council members received numerous written and in-person comments raising concerns about criminalizing young people.

"Increasing the tobacco sales age should not be about punishing our kids," American Heart Association representatives wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to Mayor Melvin Carter and council members. "Rather, it should be about protecting them from a lifetime of addiction."

After holding an initial public hearing Sept. 4, the City Council is scheduled to hold another Wednesday and to vote the following week. If the ordinance passes, St. Paul will join nearly 50 other Minnesota jurisdictions that have raised the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21.

The current version of the St. Paul ordinance lists a range of penalties for retailers who sell to customers under 21, from a $200 fine to revocation of their city license.

Michael Weis, general manager at Vape Pro's on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, spoke in opposition to the ordinance at last month's public hearing. In an interview, he said Vape Pro's has been "a safe haven" for people in sobriety who've turned to vaping as an alternative to illicit drugs. He estimated that about 20 to 30% of the store's customers are between 18 and 21.

If the ordinance extended beyond brick-and-mortar retailers to include online sales, Weis said, he and others would be willing to comply.

"If they made everybody have to follow it in the city, online as well, then nobody would have a problem with it," he said. "Online is the reason kids are getting vaping products."

Council Member Rebecca Noecker, one of the ordinance sponsors, said Friday that she "would be really open" to a discussion about regulating online sales.

"But from my perspective, this is a public health issue, and every little bit that we can do to make it harder for young people to start smoking, we should do," she said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509