Washington D.C. made bold announcements last year, then didn’t follow through. So, this year, those working to prevent youth tobacco use in Minnesota have an equally bold agenda for the Minnesota Legislature.
It starts with passing a statewide tobacco age of 21 when lawmakers return to St. Paul Tuesday. Yes, the legal age to buy tobacco went to 21 at the federal level in December when President Donald Trump and the FDA made the “major and relatively unexpected” move, as ClearWay Minnesota Director of Strategic Communications Adam Kintof said in an interview (recently) with the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board. But, as a late insert into the budget bill, the national tobacco age came without any specifics or guidance regarding implementation, enforcement, signage, or other matters that typically are detailed. Everyone from retailers to law enforcement were left confused and unsure what to do.
“So, we’re … working at the state level to have a more specific piece of legislation passed that just makes everything crystal clear,” Kintof said.
In addition to clarity, raising the tobacco age to 21 statewide would bring unity. Some 60 Minnesota cities and counties, including Duluth and Hermantown, have passed so-called Tobacco 21 laws. Legislative action can make the law uniform, without a change with practically every city or county line.
Raising the smoking age promises a 25% reduction in young Minnesotans taking up the habit, a study commissioned by the nonprofit smoking-cessation group ClearWay and the Minnesota Department of Health determined. That translates to 30,000 Minnesota kids over the next 15 years not becoming addicted to cancer-causing, life-threatening nicotine. State and national studies have shown that if tobacco use doesn’t start before 21 it likely won’t start at all.
Lawmakers in St. Paul this session can also pass strong legislation against flavored tobacco, which is shamelessly marketed to children and to smokers with the false claim that it can help with quitting.
With vaping deaths mounting in 2019, Trump announced a ban on all flavored tobacco products. What eventually took effect, however, applied to only some products and left manufacturers loopholes like renaming flavors to avoid the ban.
“It was watered down so much,” Kintof said. “We really are in favor of a complete flavor ban for tobacco products, including menthol flavor.”
The ultimate legislative goal for ClearWay and others: protect the health of young Minnesotans by stopping them from starting to use tobacco. Making progress this year could be difficult with lawmakers focused on passing a bonding bill to pay for the repairs and improvements of public places and infrastructure.
“We can never predict what’s going to happen at the Legislature, but … our efforts are still around educating all of the policymakers and legislators on the … devastating effects of tobacco and its skyrocketing use, especially among youth with e-cigarettes,” ClearWay Director of Marketing Mike Sheldon told Editorial Board members. “We want to encourage (lawmakers) to think about long-term health here.”
Especially with flashy bold overtures this past year at the federal level so quickly fizzing away.
This editorial is the opinion of the Duluth News-Tribune's editorial board.