Fourteen states have raised the tobacco-purchasing age to 21. Minnesota disappointingly won’t be joining them this year — a victory for Big Tobacco and Big Vape this legislative session but a defeat for public health.
So-called “Tobacco 21” legislation had broad support in the state House, with freshman Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, leading an energetic charge to protect young people from a lifetime of nicotine addiction through cigarettes or e-cigarette (“vaping”) devices. But the momentum died late in the session in the Republican-controlled Senate, with a physician legislator among those voicing objections.
In an interview, Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, outlined his concerns about eroding personal liberties. As a doctor, he said he would prefer if no one used tobacco. But, he said, if society is fine with an 18-year-old joining the military and wielding a machine gun in the Middle East, it should trust someone of that age with making a tobacco purchase.
But the greater good from raising the age outweighs this concern, and society agreed in principle decades ago when the alcohol age rose to 21. Tobacco 21 legislation would logically extend the same safeguards — essentially making it harder to acquire and use at a young age — to another serious public health threat.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death globally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concerns are also mounting about vaping by minors, a habit that electronically delivers a hit of addictive nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals. “E-cigarette use increased from 11.7% to 20.8% among high school students and from 3.3% to 4.9% among middle school students from 2017 to 2018,” the agency reported.
The failure to raise the tobacco age statewide doesn’t excuse the Legislature from trying again in 2020. Nor does the introduction of bills in Congress to raise the purchase age for tobacco and e-cigs to 21 nationally.
Bill authors in Congress include Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. His bill would raise the federal age without putting an onus on states, as another bill would do as proposed by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
The problem with establishing only a federal minimum age is that it could undermine compliance. Enforcement responsibilities could be limited to federal officials, not shouldered with states as it typically is now. Some retailers might run the risk of continuing to sell to people under 21 since they wouldn’t be violating state law and might not get caught if only the feds were checking.
The McConnell-Kaine bill takes a carrot-or-stick approach to get states to take action. States would lose some federal health dollars if they don’t raise the age to 21 within a tight time frame.
Some stop-smoking advocates fear the rush to pass new state laws could allow tobacco-company lobbyists an opportunity to shape the legislation to their advantage. Ginny Chadwick of the Tobacco 21 advocacy group said the industry could insert language to pre-empt cities from imposing additional regulations, such as banning menthol cigarettes or candy-flavored e-cig pods, for example.
This is a concern because localities have played a crucial role in launching indoor clean air laws and raising the purchasing age. That grassroots work shouldn’t be blocked.
Minnesota lawmakers missed a vital opportunity to protect younger generations from using products that will put them at higher risk of heart disease, cancer, and other serious illness. They need to take another run next year. A strong state law is needed if Congress doesn’t act — and if it does.