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Our View: Politics picked over protecting kids

Duluth was the first city in the state to ban smoking at bus shelters. In 2012, Duluth ended smoking in public parks, too, including on the Lakewalk. And a year after that, Duluth became the first Minnesota city to forbid e-cigarette use indoors where tobacco use already had been blocked.

This past year, however, with cities across the state — more than 20 of them in all, including Hermantown — raising the legal age to purchase tobacco, Duluth was curiously quiet. Rather than being a leader once again, our elected officials stood down.

And what was so important that public health and protecting our youth from the death sentence of nicotine addiction had to take a back seat? Politics. Sadly, maddeningly, politics.

City Councilor Em Westerlund told the News Tribune for a story last week that she had hoped Duluth would adopt a "Tobacco 21" measure right along with Hermantown and the other Minnesota cities. But she and Councilor Zack Filipovich decided to hold off until after the midterm elections. No, there weren't any City Council races on Election Day in November. But there was concern, she said, that "new tobacco restrictions could become a campaign issue up the ticket," as the News Tribune reported.

A campaign issue? How can the harmful, destructive effects of tobacco be seen as less pressing than or not as critical as anyone's political aspirations? Consider that 95 percent of addicted smokers start before they turn 21, as the American Lung Association and others have determined. Or that in Duluth, one in three 11th-graders said in a survey in 2016 that they already were using some form of tobacco product.

"Not only does tobacco product use at a young age encourage lifetime use, it also paves the way for further substance abuse, as has been well documented," Taylour Blakeman, a public-health student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, wrote in a commentary last week in the News Tribune.

"As a cardiologist in Duluth," Dr. Catherine Benziger, a member of the American Heart Association, wrote in a commentary in November, "I see the devastating effects of tobacco-related illness — including heart disease — in my patients and their families every day. It would be difficult to find a patient who didn't wish they had never started."

While Filipovich and Westerlund picked politics over those life-threatening, devastating effects, the City Council still can — and should — pass Tobacco 21. An ordinance is expected to be introduced Monday.

With 5,000 kids trying their first cigarette every day, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, approving an ordinance in Duluth can't wait another moment — or for anyone's politics.