Bill would raise tobacco purchase age to 21 statewide

April 9, 2019 GMT

A move by Olmsted County to raise the legal purchase age of tobacco products to 21 might be moot due to state legislation.

Last week, Olmsted County joined a growing list of 30 counties and municipalities to increase the minimum purchase age of tobacco to 21. However, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is expected to make its way to the floor of the Minnesota Senate this session.

The proposal, Senate File 463, would raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products across the state to 21. The restriction includes e-cigarettes and other devices used for delivering nicotine through vapor, also known as “vaping.” It would also address criticism that local ordinances hurt businesses in their jurisdiction and only serve to drive customers to neighboring communities.

The bill came out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with no opposition and a recommendation to bring it to the floor. Nelson said the measure has bipartisan support.

“I feel it’s time we have a statewide ordinance,” she said.

She applauded Olmsted County for passing its ordinance last week. The county measure passed in a 4-3 vote.

Nelson, a former teacher, said educators across the state are alarmed at the increase use of tobacco products by teenagers, mostly due to vaping.

Before such products were available, tobacco use by teens had declined steadily for more than a decade.

Rochester Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz has said the problem has become serious in the schools. Dozens of vaping devices are confiscated every week in each of the district’s high schools.

Muñoz had addressed the county commission in unofficial support of the 21 measure. He has also asked for the public’s help in keeping tobacco products from teens.

“There’s a lot of people who need to join us and help us on this issue,” he said during a substance abuse forum in January. “We’re going to be looking to our elected officials for help.”

Muñoz noted that vaping accessories and flavors are deliberately marketed at teens, adding the Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on companies marketing to teenagers.

Confiscating vaping items doesn’t appear to slow the problem since teens can legally and easily replace items, he said. It also makes the issue unnecessarily contentious at schools, he said.

“Our goal is not to catch and punish them,” Muñoz said. “Our goal is to address the problem.”

Nelson pointed to studies that show delaying the start of tobacco use curtails use long term.

“If kids don’t start before they’re 21, they don’t start,” she said.

Nelson said she’s confident the bill will pass the Republican-controlled Senate. After that, it would head to the DFL-held House. She said she didn’t want to predict what Gov. Tim Walz would do with such a measure. However, she noted that Walz, also a former teacher, has a similar perspective of the problem.

Regardless of state legislation, the measure in Olmsted County will go into effect July 1.