Despite the federal government passing a Tobacco 21 bill in December and local cities such as Owatonna and Northfield having passed similar ordinances, local public health officials say that Minnesota’s recent passage of a Tobacco 21 law “closes the gap” and provides needed consistency.
“The federal law was pretty bare bones,” said Mary Urch with Steele County Public Health. “In communities that had not yet passed Tobacco 21, the issue was that there were no compliance checks until September 2020, so this really helps clarify things for retailers and law enforcement officials.”
Urch said that the local officials she had been working with had expressed confusion about what their local applications needed to be when it came to the federal law. The language in the newly passed state law will help cities and counties craft consistent ordinances to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and tobacco-related products such as e-cigarettes to 21.
“The work we have done at the local level truly shapes statewide decisions,” Urch said, adding that she wholeheartedly believes that the cities and counties who passed Tobacco 21 ordinances helped encourage state legislators to follow suit. “Statewide statistics to us represent actual people that we know. We talk to the parents of students who are already struggling with addiction to e-cigarette products and we teach classes in high schools to students who share the day-to-day realities. It drives us to local action, and that cumulative effect builds to statewide decisions.”
Tracy Ackman-Shaw with Rice County Public Health said that the state law is a direct result of a grassroots effort by educators, healthcare workers and various elected officials. She said that this decision is going to ease the transition for other communities as everyone “gets on the same page.”
“I think this really speaks volumes to protecting the youth and getting the message across that this product is harmful,” Ackman-Shaw said, adding that the state law also clearly defines e-cig and vape products as tobacco-related substances. “This helps create barriers so that teenagers cannot get their hands on it. It isn’t a punitive action, it’s a proactive one.”
According to Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, nearly 95% of addicted adult smokers started using tobacco before they were 21. That National Academy of Medicine estimates that Tobacco 21 laws will lead to enormous health gains, including a 25% reduction in smoking initiation among 15- to 17-year-olds. Andi Arnold, the coordinator for the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition said that this is a big win for the students she works directly with who have been advocating Tobacco 21 for a number of years.
“This is a huge victory for the students who worked hard to advocate to reduce access to tobacco products,” Arnold said. “Their voices were heard and I am deeply proud of the young people I worked with who shared personal stories of the negative impact vaping had created in their daily lives and how difficult it was for them to see their friends struggle with addiction from a product they at first thought was relatively harmless.”
Arnold also cheered the recognition by legislators on the science behind brain development, stating that the introducing chemical substances at a young age create a higher risk for addiction and cognitive damage.
“There will be the people making the argument that if you can enlist in the military or vote that you should be able to buy tobacco,” Arnold said. “Military service and voting do not chemically alter the brain. We had good reason to change the drinking age back to 21, and a consistent age for substance use will make it easier to card and help in the effort to reduce access.”
The rise in popularity of vaping among teenagers was the call for concern for Owatonna, with city council member Kevin Raney bringing the Tobacco 21 ordinance that was eventually passed to the table. Raney said that he believes the unified voice among the cities and counties who already passed these ordinances is what helped the state recognize the importance of the issues.
“I’m glad that even with COVID-19 going on that the state legislature was able to push this through and move that age up to 21,” Raney said. “This is going to make a big difference, especially in the small communities that don’t really have the law enforcement to clamp down on it. The statewide law will give those cities a lot of guidance so that there is no grey area anymore, it’s just 21 or no tobacco.”
Rice County Commissioner Dave Miller was among the group that had worked with Public Health to adopt a countywide ordinance. He said that the state law will make those efforts smoother and quicker.
“Honestly it’s about time,” he said. “Too many kids are getting started using at a young age, so to just keep even a few of them from getting started I am in support of.”
Steele County’s Urch said that the governor’s signature not only shows an emphasis on overall public health, but also the recognition that both substance use and mental health are real issues facing today’s youth.
“We have found in all our focus groups — from kids and in classes — that often those young people who are using e-cigarettes are doing so to deal with emotional and mental health issues they are having,” Urch said. “The passage of Tobacco 21 highlights Minnesota’s commitment to understanding mental health and preventing substance use. This is a looming problem, and it is great for us to recognize that this foundational prevention is needed. “