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Tobacco 21 movement gathers momentum in Minnesota

“Under 21, No Tobacco. It’s the Law.”

The new, green signs have popped up in convenience stores and gas stations across Edina this summer. For some customers, the signs are a reminder of the change that made headlines as Edina broke from its neighbors and raised the legal age to buy tobacco products within its city limits from 18 to 21. For others, their trip into a store like Lang’s One Stop Market is the first time they learn of the new rule.

“I get a lot of reaction from customers that come through,” Anita Lang, co-owner and co-founder of Lang’s, told me. “Older people say ‘Oh, that’s good. They'll probably thank you later.’ Younger people say ‘How can just one city do this?’ ”

The comments from Lang’s customers are two sides of the conversation about legislation that has been developing both within Minnesota and across the country. Edina became the first city in the state to join that conversation on May 2 when its City Council voted to raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and vaping products from 18 to 21.

Soon, however, Edina will not be alone. Just a few weeks after Edina’s ordinance went into effect July 1, the St. Louis Park City Council voted to raise its legal age of purchase to 21, effective Oct. 1. Further yet, city councils in towns like Detroit Lakes, Bloomington, Mankato and North Mankato have all been considering their own city ordinances, and state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, introduced a bill (S.F. 2370) in the Minnesota Legislature proposing raising the age across the state.

These moves in Minnesota are a part of the Tobacco 21 movement nationwide that has been picking up speed in the past few years. More than 260 cities and counties in 18 states have raised the age of purchase to 21, and five states (Hawaii, California, Oregon, Maine and New Jersey) have made Tobacco 21 state law. Three of the five (Oregon, Maine and New Jersey) just passed their age increases this summer, all within less than three weeks of one another.

The roots of the Tobacco 21 movement
When Dr. Rob Crane’s father died from lung cancer after years of smoking, he made a silent vow to take on the tobacco companies responsible for his father’s addiction. Busy balancing his time as a family doctor and a professor at Ohio State University, Crane finally got the chance to take on the issue during a sabbatical in 1996. While looking around for ways to make a difference, he noticed that although drinking was not legal until 21, tobacco was still legal at 18. “It didn't make sense to me.”

Crane founded the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation that same year, and took on Tobacco 21 as the group’s main campaign. Tobacco 21 policies aim to reduce the incidence of addiction by restricting youth access to tobacco products. Since nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers start before age 21, these policies aim to prevent addiction when it is most likely to develop.

As the group’s first action, Crane took up raising the legal age of purchase in the group’s home state, Ohio. But after legislation failed there in 1996, and then in a number of other states in 1997, the push for Tobacco 21 stalled for a number of years. After nearly 10 years without progress, though, that changed with one Boston suburb.

The movement takes off

In 2005, Dr. Crane received a phone call from Needham, Mass. The 30,000-person town just 30 minutes from Boston had decided to raise its legal age of purchase to 21. Six years later, Crane received another phone call from the Boston suburb, this time to report the effects of the law. Needham had completed a survey comparing smoking rates within its city limits to those in the surrounding towns, and its findings were staggering. They found that frequent smoking in Needham had dropped 62 percent, a decrease nearly triple that in the surrounding cities.

“That was the beginning,” Crane said. “Then a couple of Harvard pediatricians took up the cry and, like Paul Revere, went city to city and managed to convince about half a dozen suburbs around Boston to adopt Tobacco 21 laws.”

With the movement gaining force in Massachusetts, cities and states elsewhere began to take notice. In Nov. 2013, New York City and the Big Island, Hawaii, adopted Tobacco 21 laws. A number of other cities followed in the next two years until what Crane calls “the real help” came in 2015.

That year, the Institute of Medicine released a study commissioned by the FDA on the public health implications of Tobacco 21. One of its key findings was that raising the age of purchase nationally would lead to a 25 percent decrease in smoking initiation among 15- to 17-year-olds. “That got everybody’s attention,” Crane said. “It made the scientific and medical fields sit up and take notice, because it predicted that if we went to 21 nationally, it would save 4.2 million lives.”

Since that report came out, Tobacco 21 legislation has expanded rapidly. The number of cities with Tobacco 21 legislation has more than doubled from 125 cities just one year ago to more than 260 cities today. Now, nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population lives in a city or state where the minimum legal age of tobacco purchase is 21.

Tobacco 21 takes hold in Minnesota

On March 7, Edina Mayor Jim Hovland gathered with the rest of the City Council to hear a presentation from Edina’s Community Health Commission. If Edina adopted a Tobacco 21 policy, they said, the city would reduce youth smoking rates and save lives. Hovland was so convinced by the presentation that he still remembers his surprise when he learned that no other city in the state had yet adopted Tobacco 21.

“It seemed to me hearing the data that we would be far from the first,” Hovland said. “But it didn’t matter whether we were first or tenth, what was important was that we were making a solid public health decision.”

Less than two months later, the council voted unanimously to be the first city in the state to raise its legal age.

Meanwhile, just across city limits, the same conversation went on at St. Louis Park’s City Hall. Before learning that Edina was considering Tobacco 21 laws, St. Louis Park’s City Council had also started discussing the issue. Not long after Edina’s law took effect July 1, the St. Louis Park Council voted 5-0 on July 17 to make its city the second in the state to pass legislation of this kind.

One of those votes in favor came from Susan Sanger, a 21-year veteran of the council, who said the reason she and her fellow council members supported the bill was twofold.

“One reason was to try to protect and improve the public health for the community,” Sanger said. “The second reason was to start to build the momentum to get other communities to pass the same kind of ordinance with the hope that the Minnesota legislature would pass this state-wide.”

Though no other communities in the state have yet put Tobacco 21 to a vote, some are close.

Detroit Lakes has drafted an ordinance to be discussed Sept. 21; Bloomington is “looking favorably” at drafting an ordinance that would have the city adopting Tobacco 21, according to City Manager Jamie Verbrugge; Mankato and North Mankato are likely to pass Tobacco 21 ordinances, despite disagreements between the two cities that have delayed the voting process.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, these conversations are just beginning. Six cities in the greater St. Cloud area, for example, will open discussion on Tobacco 21 at an all-cities meeting Aug. 29.

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