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Minnesota Opinion: Minnesota should step up on tobacco age

In an editorial last week, the Duluth News Tribune praised Edina for becoming the first city in Minnesota to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.

(Other cities were) urged to follow suit.

"Better yet," the newspaper opined, "the Minnesota Legislature can (make) the sensible move of raising the age statewide. Legislative action would reduce the number of young Minnesotans who take up the habit by 25 percent."

Two days after city councilors in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina took their historic vote — and the same day the editorial was published — a bill was introduced in St. Paul to raise the state's minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. And a share of the credit for the legislation can go to Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth, a co-author.

"It has a lot of bipartisan support, and it ties in nicely with work I have supported in the past to further curb teen smoking," Simonson told the Duluth News Tribune Opinion page. "The more youths we can deter from starting smoking at a young age, the more healthy our population. And the fact is, smoking has a huge impact on the overall cost of health care."

Indeed, the 25 percent reduction in young Minnesotans taking up the habit was estimated in a study commissioned by the nonprofit smoking-cessation group ClearWay Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health.

"That's 30,000 Minnesota kids over the next 15 years who will not become addicted," ClearWay's Anne Mason said in an interview last week with the Opinion page. "It takes it out of a high school kid's social circle. ... If (tobacco companies) don't get to you before age 21, chances are you won't become an addicted adult."

An estimated 95 percent of adults who smoke or use tobacco started before they were 21, according to ClearWay. Once hooked, smokers and other tobacco users face the likelihood of lung cancer, throat cancer, and other deadly ailments. An estimated 5,100 to 5,500 Minnesotans die every year from smoking. The habit accounts for one in five U.S. deaths annually. Tobacco kills more people every year than alcohol, murders, car crashes, AIDS, illegal drugs, and suicides — combined, according to ClearWay.

And smokers and other tobacco users aren't the only ones who pay a price. A 2013 estimate found that Minnesotans dole out $3 billion a year to cover excess health-care costs related to smoking. That comes to about $554 from every man, woman and child in the state.

Minnesota was a pioneer in clearing the air with the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act. The state's Freedom to Breathe Act followed in 2007, banning smoking in all public places, including even restaurants, bars and bowling alleys. More recently, lawmakers jacked up the state's tobacco tax in an attempt to make tobacco use cost-prohibitive, especially to young people.

Minnesota can continue to be a national leader by joining Hawaii and California in raising the age to buy tobacco to 21 — even if it doesn't happen this session.

"It is a good bill," Simonson said. "I am hopeful we can make some progress next session."

The sooner the state takes action the sooner it'll improve the health of Minnesotans, especially young people.