Over the last few years with the advent of e-cigarettes, the amount of middle school and high school students that have taken up the use of tobacco has spiked. In response to the upsurge in usage and growing addiction to nicotine among school-age children – recent estimates are that 50 percent of high school students have vaped and 25 percent are regular users – Minnesota cities and counties have started enacting their own ordinances to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco-related products from 18 to 21.
Wright County may well join that growing list. This summer, the county is working on a Tobacco 21 ordinance that would place much stronger restrictions on those who sell tobacco and e-cigarettes. A public hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17 to get public input on the proposed change.
Wright County Public Health Director Sarah Grosshuesch said that the groundswell of local support to enact new age restrictions on tobacco is nothing new. The first such law took effect in 2005 when the City of Needham, Mass., unilaterally raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21, resulting in a nearly 15 percent drop in tobacco use among high school students. Chicago passed Tobacco 21 in 2016 and noted a 36 percent decrease.
“This has been a movement that has been going on throughout the state,” Grosshuesch said. “As of now, Hennepin County became the ninth county in the state that have already approved ordinances to raise the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 and more than 30 cities. We first saw the impact in Wright County when several cities in Hennepin County, including Rockford, approved ordinances to raise the age from 18 to 21. Because Rockford is located in both Wright and Hennepin County, when their ordinance was passed, it created a unique situation for us.”
The impetus behind the Tobacco 21 law has been the proliferation of e-cigarettes and vaping among students. Easily concealed, often masked in fruit or candy flavors and difficult to detect because it doesn’t produce smoke like conventional tobacco, vaping has become a national issue and Minnesota is taking action to prevent it from spreading.
“There are several counties that are in the position Wright County is in,” Grosshuesch said. “I know that Sherburne County has informed retailers about its plan to adopt a T21 policy. It’s become such an issue among our kids, especially where it deals with e-cigarettes. This is a tool to help us reframe the message and educate children about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarettes.”
The tobacco industry has tried to attract younger smokers because research has shown that those who start smoking as teens tend to remain smokers throughout their lives. Social media platforms advertise these products targeting the youth audience. However, not all of the commissioners believe that increasing the age to 21 will make that big a difference.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell has been a vocal opponent of the law, despite being a non-smoker who has a strong dislike for the smell and health impacts of tobacco. But, he sees adding a new law isn’t going to solve the problem.
“I think that it’s unnecessary and I’ve always been opposed to creating new laws where they’re not needed,” Borrell said. “It’s already illegal for someone under 18 to smoke and the school kids seem to be the target audience of this ordinance. At a committee meeting, I asked a rhetorical question – why don’t we raise the age to smoke marijuana from 18 to 21 and that will keep it out of the schools? It’s already illegal, but just about any high school kid who wants marijuana can probably find it. I just don’t see the reason to add another law on the books that isn’t necessary because any 19 or 20 year old who wants tobacco will be able to get it.”
Commissioner Mike Potter said that the last year has been an eye-opener for him because the age of those who use e-cigarettes and vaping paraphernalia are getting younger all the time and the consequences are becoming more obvious.
“I went to a Safe Schools meeting in Rockford and, in one month this spring, three middle school had to get an ambulance ride because they O.D.’ed by vaping,” Potter said. “That got my attention. Those little pouches are the equivalent to about five packs of cigarettes. They don’t smell like regular tobacco and usually don’t taste like tobacco. They’re easy to conceal and kids are getting addicted to nicotine. Hennepin County passed an ordinance. Benton County already has and Sherburne County is working one right now like we are. Right now there are nine counties in the state that have ordinances. By the end of 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised if just about every county in the state has an ordinance like this.”
It’s unusual for laws to start at the grassroots level instead of being handed down from Congress or state legislatures. Attempts have been made at both the federal and state level over the years, but passing legislation against the strong tobacco lobby, whether to approve raising the smoking age or to get states to pass the Clear Indoor Air Act, has caused those measures to get bogged down and delayed for years.
Whether adopting Tobacco 21 ordinances will be effective in Minnesota has yet to be seen since most of the counties and cities that have adopted the new local laws have done so within the last year and there isn’t much empirical data that has been generated to study. While there may be some opposition at the Sept. 17 meeting from retailers who will see their own bottom line impacted, Grosshuesch said the job of the county’s Health & Human Services Department and her Public Health office is to do what it can to protect children – and trying to prevent them from accessing e-cigarettes and other tobacco products at a young age is worth pursuing.
The goal isn’t to abolish smoking. If an adult wants to light up or vape, that’s a personal decision each person can make, much like drinking. But, when it comes to children and addiction, the Tobacco 21 laws are seeking to stem the growing popularity of vaping because it poses more potential long-term impacts on children than adults.
“When you’re a child, your brain is still developing and these products actually impact how your brain works,” Grosshuesch said. “They trick the young brain into becoming addicted. In many cases, we don’t know what is in these products and the dangers that they could pose to children. We’re still learning about the dangers and side effects that e-cigarettes produce. Our goal is to have kids live the best, healthiest lives they can and we believe this program can help try to stop the spread of nicotine addiction that we’ve seen rise in recent years with growth of e-cigarette use.”
John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.