In the past two weeks, Minnesota achieved a huge victory for kids and health. Both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature voted to raise our state’s tobacco sale age to 21, and Gov. Tim Walz quickly signed Tobacco 21 into law. This change will put us in alignment with a federal law signed by President Trump last December and provide needed clarity to Minnesota retailers, law enforcement and residents.
Most important of all, Tobacco 21 will protect current and future generations of Minnesota kids from the dangers of tobacco products, which continue to evolve and attract young users. As Senate and House authors of this legislation, we have been pushing for Tobacco 21 for a long time in partnership with youth, parents, physicians, business leaders and public health advocates. The story of Tobacco 21 in Minnesota goes back years, and we are proud our bill has finally been embraced by lawmakers of both chambers and both parties.
The dangers of smoking, established by the U.S. Surgeon General more than five decades ago, have had disastrous consequences for Minnesota. Even today, when smoking rates are lower than in the past, smoking kills 6,300 Minnesotans a year and costs $7 billion in health care and lost productivity. At the root of the problem is young people, who are targeted as the next generation of tobacco customers. Nearly 95 percent of smokers started before age 21, when their brains are not fully developed and are particularly susceptible to addiction. For many, youthful experimentation leads to lifelong dependence, meaning lifelong damage to the lungs, the heart and practically every other organ. Big Tobacco knows this very well and continues to adjust its products and marketing to lure kids.
Tobacco 21 helps stop the start by blocking the nicotine pipeline into schools. Research shows that most kids younger than 18 who use tobacco products get them from older school friends. There are many 18-year-olds in high schools, but practically no 21-year-olds. Raising the sale age puts tobacco out of reach for many students in middle and high schools.
We introduced Tobacco 21 legislation years ago. However, it took a crisis of rising youth tobacco rates to raise urgency and create momentum for this change. E-cigarettes, or vapes, despite being relatively new tobacco products, have been adopted by youth in Minnesota and across the country in enormous numbers.
Today, we have reached the point where 26 percent of 11th-graders are vaping – a staggering figure. Even 11 percent of 8th-graders are now using e-cigarettes – a figure that doubled in three years. Skyrocketing e-cigarette use has reinvigorated interest in protecting youth from tobacco addiction. Parents were shocked to learn how easy e-cigarettes were to disguise as school supplies and other household items. We continue to hear horror stories about students using them in bathrooms, hallways and even classrooms at school.
These concerns brought action. Community by community, cities and counties, 75 in all, began passing strong Tobacco 21 ordinances in Minnesota – including in both our legislative districts. This past December, Congress passed and President Trump signed a national Tobacco 21 law. But the federal law left Minnesota municipalities and retailers in a state of confusion. Then, early this year, the COVID-19 outbreak brought even more urgency to the need to protect the lung health of all Minnesotans. These factors all combined to propel our state Tobacco 21 bill across the finish line with strong bipartisan backing. Supported by the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition of health organizations as well as by local law enforcement, chambers of commerce, school administrators and teachers, and even some retailers, the respective House and Senate versions gained coauthors and supporters from both parties and all corners of the state.
As lawmakers, we have a long commitment to health and fighting youth tobacco use, and we understand the importance of preventing addiction before it starts. We are proud to have led this movement, to have done right by Minnesota kids, and to have created a change that will improve health and quality of life in our state for generations to come.