Concern is growing over Minnesota youth using nicotine-bearing tobacco products that damage their health and brain development.
A campaign is underway by Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation to encourage the Minnesota Legislature to increase the tobacco-purchasing age to 21 years. A bill introduced in the last legislative session did not get a hearing. The coalition has secured sponsors in the Senate and hopes to secure House backers in the 2018 session.
To date, city councils in Edina, Bloomington, St. Louis Park and Plymouth have passed laws changing the age of purchasing tobacco products, including fruit-flavored products, to 21. While this is effective in each respective community, 18-year olds still can buy tobacco products in neighboring cities that don’t have a 21-year age limit.
The goal, therefore, is to enact a state law changing the legal age to 21 for purchasing tobacco products.
We salute the efforts by the four metro cities but believe now is the time to expand the effort to the state level. We encourage the Legislature to hold hearings on this important health issue and pass a law changing the age from 18 to 21 years. California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and Oregon have already done so.
Health data on use of tobacco products is alarming. Dr. Thomas Kottke, medical director of HealthPartners, said 6,300 Minnesotans die from tobacco-related diseases and smoking costs the state more than $3 billion annually.
Of greater concern is the increasing number of teenagers smoking products they buy from 18-year-olds in high schools.
David Willoughby, chief executive officer of ClearWay Minnesota, one of 50 coalition members advocating a change in the law, says that 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before age 21. If young people can be prevented from smoking by 21, they probably will never smoke.
A recent Minnesota Youth Tobacco survey conducted by the National Institute of Health revealed that 38.7 percent of high school and 12 percent of middle school students use tobacco products. When the Edina City Council became the first Minnesota city to change the purchasing age, it estimated that 60 high school juniors in Edina were smoking.
Lately there’s more evidence that early smokers damage brain development, Dr. Kottke said. “Nicotine interferes with brain maturation and has long-term effects on development and mental health,” he said.
Most of the opposition to the change is coming from retailers who say the proposed law would hurt their sales. The percentage of tobacco products sold to 18-to-20-year olds is from 2 to 4 percent, according to ClearWay Minnesota.
Based on public opinion related to the legal age for smoking, retail sales should not be the dominant factor in making a change. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2015 showed that 75 percent of adults favored increasing the tobacco age to 21. That included 70 percent of current smokers and 65 percent of those ages 18 to 24.
Regardless of the law retailers counter that young people will find other ways to get tobacco products. Minnesota research says, however, that if the change were made 30,000 fewer young people would smoke in the next 15 years.
Others argue that if 18-year-olds are eligible for the armed services and place themselves in harm’s way they should be able to buy tobacco products.
The military, however, is concerned about early smoking and its effect on the health of men and women to be battle-ready. A support group of more than 200 retired generals and admirals strongly backs raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products, according to retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Sheedy.
Because research on the harmful effects of using tobacco products, particularly by Minnesota youth, is so serious, we join with Minnesotans For a Smoke Free Generation in urging the Minnesota Legislature to pass a law changing the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21.
– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board