On May 16, 2020, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill raising our state tobacco sales age to 21. The new state law reinforces the federal Tobacco 21 law signed by President Trump in December of 2019, and will allow state and local units of government to conduct compliance checks and ensure the law is being followed. Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of more than 60 organizations working to prevent youth tobacco addiction, released this statement on the new law:
Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation today thanked Governor Tim Walz for signing Tobacco 21 into state law. Raising the state tobacco age will align the state with federal law and keep tobacco products out of middle and high schools. Minnesota is the 25th state to adopt Tobacco 21.
“Minnesota’s Tobacco 21 effort started with a few concerned residents and physicians and has grown into 75 local policies and thousands of youth, parents and supporters across the state united behind raising the tobacco age,” said Molly Moilanen, Vice President at ClearWay MinnesotaSM and Co-Chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation.“Thank you to Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan for listening to Minnesota’s youth and working with them to take on an industry that continues to profit from addiction and disease. It will take a bold, comprehensive effort to truly combat the health crisis of youth vaping, and Tobacco 21 is a very important first step toward this goal.”
The Tobacco 21 bill (HF331) gained strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and was championed by lawmakers from across Minnesota. Congress passed national Tobacco 21 in December 2019, and the discrepancy between the state tobacco age (18) and federal law (21) was causing confusion and tying the hands of local law enforcement. In addition to aligning with the federal tobacco age, the bill updates relevant state tobacco definitions, penalties and signage requirements to ensure strong compliance and enforcement.
Raising the tobacco age to 21 will help keep tobacco products out of schools, since there are many 18-year-olds but few 21-year-olds in high school social circles. Nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started before 21. The National Academy of Medicine estimates that Tobacco 21 would lead to enormous health gains, including a 25 percent reduction in smoking initiation among 15-to-17-year-olds.
Action is needed to combat rising youth tobacco use. The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey found that more than a quarter of 11th-graders and more than one in 10 8th-graders used e-cigarettes in the past month. From 2016 to 2019, 8th-grade vaping rates nearly doubled. E-cigarette use has erased two decades of progress to reduce youth tobacco rates and the U.S. Surgeon General calls youth vaping an epidemic. Health experts are concerned about e-cigarette use because nicotine in any form harms the developing adolescent brain and can prime youth for addiction to cigarettes and other substances.
The COVID-19 pandemic added urgency for adopting stronger tobacco prevention polices. Early studies have found COVID-19 may be particularly dangerous for people with lungs weakened by chronic disease, asthma and tobacco use.
The Tobacco 21 movement has gained tremendous momentum in Minnesota. In May 2017, Edina was the first Minnesota community to pass Tobacco 21. Today, 75 Minnesota communities have local Tobacco 21 policies. Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) first introduced the Senate Tobacco 21 bill in May 2017. Sen. Nelson is a longtime supporter of tobacco prevention and championed other historic policies including securing funding for smoking cessation services and adding e-cigarettes to the statewide smoking ban. In 2018, former Representative Dario Anselmo first introduced the House version of the bill and in 2019, Representative Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina) took the lead as chief author, continuing Edina’s trailblazing leadership. Before her election to the Minnesota House, Rep. Edelson helped pass Edina’s local Tobacco 21 policy. Over the last two sessions, Rep. Edelson has served as a tenacious champion of the House Tobacco 21 bill.
Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation is a coalition of more than 60 organizations that share a common goal of reducing youth smoking and ending tobacco’s harm for good. The coalition is united behind four major policies that reduce youth smoking and nicotine addiction, including raising the tobacco sale age to 21, increasing tobacco prices, prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products and investing in tobacco prevention programs.
Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan have shown strong support for these policies. In March, they released a supplemental budget proposal that would have increased the tax on e-cigarettes and invested in youth tobacco prevention and cessation. Earlier in the session, the Walz/Flanagan Administration announced their support for statewide Tobacco 21 and clearing the market of flavored tobacco products in Minnesota. The Governor and Lt. Governor are also holding Big Tobacco accountable for its role in the youth nicotine epidemic. In December, they joined Attorney General Keith Ellison in announcing Minnesota’s lawsuit against JUUL for illegally marketing to youth.
Several legislative proposals to reduce youth tobacco use – including prevention funding and ending the sale of flavored tobacco products – advanced this year in the committee process. These bills were understandably halted by the legislature’s focus on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.