Seven states — California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia — prohibit tobacco sales to anyone younger than 21. Illinois and New York are poised to follow suit.
Minnesota should join that club. In fact, Minnesota should have joined that club a long time ago, with the goal of pushing our state’s smoking rate as close to zero as it possibly can.
Yes, tobacco is a legal product and likely always will be. With recreational marijuana gaining acceptance, it’s difficult to conceive of a day when tobacco would be prohibited. Our nation tried that with alcohol, and it didn’t work out very well. If cigarettes cost $50 per pack, some people would still smoke.
Nevertheless, all state governments should pursue the goal of making tobacco and its derivative products very expensive and very difficult for young people to acquire — so difficult that most teens won’t even bother trying.
Simply raising the legal age to 21 would be a great step toward that goal.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Commission commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine to determine what affect raising the tobacco-purchase age would have. Their findings? In states that raise the minimum age to 21, today’s teenagers would have a 12 percent lower smoking rate once they become adults.
And, as we all know, those non-smokers would have lower risks of cancer, heart disease and stroke, and have healthier babies, than they would have if they’d started smoking when they were 17.
The math is fairly simple. Ninety-five percent of adult smokers pick up the habit before the age of 21, and 46 percent say they were daily smokers before they turned 18. A 19-year-old’s brain, according to the Institute of Health study, is still developing impulse control and decision-making skills and is more susceptible to peer pressure than is a 21-year-old.
So, if the tobacco industry can’t hook ‘em young, there’s a good chance it won’t hook them at all.
To that end, companion bills in the Minnesota House and Senate would raise the legal purchase age to 21, and would include vaping products in the definition of tobacco. That’s tremendously important, as vaping is the direct cause of a sudden uptick in Minnesota’s teen smoking rate after 17 consecutive years of decline.
The House version of this bill has 23 co-authors, including 21 DFLers. While it’s safe to assume that the House will have an easier time passing such legislation, we must point out that Sen. Carla Nelson, a Republican from Rochester, is one of three GOP senators who’ve signed on to the Senate version of this bill.
We tip our cap to Nelson, whose position lines up perfectly with Olmsted County’s longstanding leadership role in the battle against tobacco and its affects on public health. In 2006, Olmsted County led the way in the effort to prohibit smoking in the workplace, and five months later, in January 2007, the Legislature followed suit with the Freedom to Breathe Act.
But it’s worth noting that Olmsted County wouldn’t be the first governing body in Minnesota to raise the legal smoking age. Minneapolis, Edina, Bloomington and nearly two dozen other municipalities already have raised their legal age for purchasing tobacco, a movement known as “Tobacco 21.”
As more cities and counties follow suit, it will be increasingly difficult for teenagers to find peers with easy access to tobacco products, which is the primary reason this change is needed. The average 15-year-old attends school with plenty of 18-year-olds who can legally buy tobacco, but 21-year-olds are rare in a high school hallways.
The Olmsted County Board will hold a public meeting April 2 to get input on this decision. While some retailers might oppose a higher smoking age, it’s time for Olmsted County to add its voice to the chorus pushing for legislative action to better protect Minnesota teenagers from a lifetime of addiction.