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Local organizers are in the preliminary stages of proposing the legal tobacco purchasing age be increased to 21.

The Northfield City Council could discuss the proposal, currently being developed by city subcommittee Northfield Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), at the Nov. 19 meeting. Council approval could come in January.

The ordinance change would cover electronic cigarettes, a product that has drawn scrutiny in recent months as a slate of illnesses and deaths have been attributed to using the product. Per state law, once passed, the ordinance change will not take effect for 30 days after council approval.

In contemplating the measure, organizers hope to stifle tobacco use in the future by restricting youth access to the products. They say teenage tobacco use makes them more likely to be addicted later in their lives. Right now, organizers are focusing on raising the purchasing age because they believe it will cut access to tobacco products for those under 21. Research has reportedly shown raising the tobacco age to 21 results in a 25% reduction in smoking among 15- to 17-year-olds. Cities only have the authority to regulate tobacco purchasing ages. The state must pass any change to the state’s tobacco use age.

Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition Coordinator Katie Reed said having 18-year-olds in high school buying tobacco makes underage students more susceptible to trying the product.

Fifty-two Minnesota cities and counties have raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21. Organizers estimate 19% of Minnesota students have used tobacco products in the last 30 days. The rate of e-cigarette use among ninth- through 11th-graders doubles the rate of traditional cigarette users in the same age group.

An estimated 95% of adult smokers began using before they were 21 years old.

Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig noted studies show health complications from tobacco use cost the state more than $3 billion annually and more than 6,000 Minnesotans die from tobacco-related causes every year. He added e-cigarette products are known to sometimes be misrepresented as not containing tobacco.

He said ASAP waited to see if the Minnesota Legislature was going to take action on e-cigarette regulation during last year’s legislative session before tackling the issue at the local level, but the Legislature did not do so.

Martig expects, due to the rapidly evolving health concerns over e-cigarette use, the Legislature will pass tobacco-related legislation this session but is unsure what will be included. Martig said the rise of e-cigarette products has turned around slowing tobacco use rates. To him, data is showing that e-cigarettes are no safer than traditional cigarettes.

Reed acknowledged research on e-cigarettes is still ongoing but rejects assertions made by the e-cigarette industry that its products help ease tobacco use and are safer to use than traditional cigarettes. She noted e-cigarettes still have nicotine and other dangerous chemicals. She called on people not to use the products.

Reed said e-cigarettes could seem attractive to youth because they are relatively easy to hide in school and come in fruity flavors.

“A lot of youth do not know what they are putting into their bodies,” she said.

To Reed, reducing tobacco use “just helps contribute to a healthier community, in general.”

School working to reduce tobacco use rates

Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted the district oversaw a public awareness campaign on the dangers of vaping by students last winter. Posters explaining the dangers of e-cigarettes were posted at the high school and middle school. The high school flex hour has recently been used as an informative session for students on the issue.

The district prohibits tobacco use on campus. Hillmann noted the school seeks to hold students accountable when they violate the policy while also connecting them with help to beat the addiction.

Hillmann said he is aware of students using tobacco on school grounds despite the steps the district has taken to prevent use. He added the school is cognizant of the possibility that student tobacco use will never fully be eradicated. It was recently revealed that Minnesota youth tobacco use was up for the first time in 17 years.

“We know that teenagers’ brains are not fully developed,” Hillmann said.

“We are cognizant that we will never most likely eliminate something.”

Despite that, he said the Northfield community has a strong track record of successfully addressing issues that impact children.

To Hillmann, the government could continue educating the public on the dangers of tobacco products and protect children from tobacco marketing.

Speaking personally, Hillmann said Tobacco 21 “makes a lot of sense.”

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115.

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