Already, 12 states, in the name of improving health, have raised the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. Minnesota may join them as soon as today, as a special session of the Legislature wraps up this week (we hope) and final bills are signed or rejected, including a proposed so-called "Tobacco 21" measure for Minnesota.
Also already, 34 cities in Minnesota have raised their tobacco age to 21, including Hermantown in November and Duluth in February.
Credit so many state and local leaders for recognizing that nearly all addicted adult smokers started before they were 21 and for taking effective action to get cancer-causing tobacco products, particularly e-cigarettes, out of high schools and out of the hands of young people.
That said, despite so much good intention and well-meaning action, there's this reality, too: Our nation now has a whole lot of state and local laws dictating who can light up, dip, or vape and where. That means there's just as much confusion from community to community and state to state about what's legal and what's prohibited.
This week, in a move that can clear the air of both uncertainty and toxic smoke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, filed a bipartisan bill to raise the tobacco-buying age nationwide to 21. Just like at the state and local levels, the intent, the senators said, is keeping tobacco away from young people so they aren't hooked at an early age.
It's a laudable, potentially life-saving goal for senators whose states have long histories with tobacco as a cash crop.
"We both felt that coming from tobacco states, we had a kind of special role to play in all this," McConnell said in a USA Today story published in the News Tribune this week. Kaine, who as governor of Virginia signed a statewide smoke-free law, said Tobacco 21 is "a critical part of our efforts to improve public health."
Critics of Tobacco 21 fear such laws actually shield Big Tobacco from aggressive enforcement. They further charge that restrictions too often don't include liquid, nicotine-containing cartridges in bubble gum and other flavors that appeal especially to children, as the story reported. Federal legislation can easily be written to address and quell these and other concerns. A federal law must be a strong law.
Legislation at the federal level promises to be a final word over state and local Tobacco 21 efforts. The bipartisan bill from McConnell and Kaine as well as a previously introduced similar measure from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and U.S. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, doubles the chances of the U.S. as a whole effectively taking charge in the name of protecting coming generations from the deadly scourge of tobacco addiction.