There was no news coverage two weeks ago when researchers in Minnesota announced their findings that raising the legal age to buy tobacco, from 18 to 21, “significantly” reduced tobacco use among eighth- and ninth-graders.
Probably because that was the whole idea, precisely what we had been told would be the outcome here in Minnesota after lawmakers voted to enact what’s often referred to as Tobacco 21. The laws and policies are meant to restrict and reduce young people’s access to tobacco products. The new higher tobacco age went into effect in Minnesota in July 2020.
While not headline-grabbing, the researchers’ findings are noteworthy and important nonetheless, providing reassurance that the Legislature’s unpopular-with-some decision was the right one in effectively protecting young Minnesotans from the addictive, health-destroying, cancer-causing effects of nicotine.
State and national studies have shown repeatedly that if tobacco use doesn’t start before age 21, it likely won’t start at all. The nonprofit smoking-cessation group ClearWay and the Minnesota Department of Health touted that raising the tobacco age would result in a 25% reduction in young Minnesotans taking up the habit. That translates to 30,000 Minnesota kids over the next 15 years not becoming addicted to cigarettes and other tobacco products, putting their lives in jeopardy.
The predicted, positive results are emerging, according to the researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School and the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Tobacco 21 policies are an effective strategy to reduce adolescent tobacco use, particularly among middle school and early high school-age adolescents,” Dr. April Wilhelm, a family medicine physician with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview said in a statement.
The evidence is in the researchers’ study, which was published Nov. 2 by Oxford University Press. It found that eighth- and ninth-grade students who lived in communities with Tobacco 21 policies were significantly less likely to report using tobacco products than their peers in communities without Tobacco 21. Those products include cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and flavored tobacco.
Researchers weren’t able to note the same result among 11th-grade students, however. More study can be done to determine why not and to help figure out what other steps can be taken to further protect young people.
“Many factors may be contributing,” Dr. Wilhelm said, “including compliance challenges with proof-of-age identification checks, increased mobility, and social connections of older adolescents in their daily lives.”
Researchers acknowledge that real-world data on Tobacco 21 policies are limited, especially among younger adolescents. This makes their study this month all that more significant.
“It’s crucial to better understand the underlying reasons for the age-related differences in Tobacco 21 policy effects that we observed so that … policies can be optimized for a broader range of adolescents,” said Wilhelm.
Tobacco 21 laws are decades overdue, which is at least as long as efforts have been around to protect Minnesotans and Americans from the deadly scourge of nicotine. The latest battleground is against kids vaping, many who believe it’s harmless or at least less harmful than cigarettes and other nicotine products.
A report in 2015 from the National Academy of Medicine determined that Tobacco 21 could prevent 223,000 deaths nationwide among people born between 2000 and 2019, including reducing lung cancer deaths by 50,000. The landmark report provided science to fuel advocacy efforts, according to the American Lung Association.
"Tobacco 21 is not the last step — but it's an important first step toward preventing youth tobacco addiction," Molly Moilanen, vice president at ClearWay Minnesota and a co-chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, said in a statement, as Forum News Service reported in summer 2020. "Minnesotans are hungry for even more meaningful action to prevent youth addiction."
The new statewide tobacco age brought border-to-border unity after some 60 cities and counties in Minnesota, including Duluth and Hermantown, passed local Tobacco 21 laws. Regulations no longer change from community to community, which was confusing and also unfair to local businesses complying while shops in neighboring towns didn’t have to.
Minnesota's statute also lines up with federal law. In December 2020, President Donald Trump and the FDA unexpectedly but encouragingly announced a national tobacco-buying age of 21.
"Tobacco use remains the single-largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year. In addition, smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion a year, including nearly $170 billion in direct medical care for adults and $156 billion in lost productivity."
It’s a disheartening toll in deaths and costs.
Keeping young Minnesotans far away from the filthy habit has long been the goal of Tobacco 21. And it’s working. An encouraging — even if apparently not newsworthy — new study by researchers here in Minnesota has now provided some of the first evidence.