Cities in the metro area and around Minnesota are adopting new measures to restrict juvenile access to tobacco and reduce addiction at an early age.
Fueled by the national Tobacco 21 campaign and spurred by state anti-tobacco organizations, the movement has gained momentum since May when Edina became the first of several Minnesota cities to raise the tobacco sales age to 21.
Advocates believe that barring vendors from selling cigarettes to those under 21 makes it harder for teenagers to get tobacco products. A study published in Minnesota Medicine earlier this year, asserting that a higher sales age would prevent thousands of teenagers from starting to smoke, has become the foundation for the local push for tobacco reform.
Still, tobacco lobbyists insist that changes in law should be handled at the federal rather than the local level. And many cities remain concerned that such a restriction would hurt retailers operating on slender margins and chase business to neighboring locales.
The efforts are especially noticeable in the west metro suburbs. Bloomington earlier this month joined neighboring Edina and St. Louis Park in raising the sales age. Robbinsdale approved different tobacco restrictions soon after, and Plymouth has set a hearing at the end of the month on raising the sales age.
The movement extends beyond the Twin Cities. The St. Cloud City Council voted this month to raise the sales age to 21 (though Mayor Dave Kleis has since vetoed the measure). The cities of Mankato and North Mankato, which first discussed the sales age issue months ago, plan to vote on it early next year.
For advocates, the patchwork of sales restrictions is the best way to get the attention of the Legislature.
“Historically, what we’ve seen is that tobacco control prevention measures … seem to start at the local level,” said Betsy Brock, director of research for the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota.
But they face pushback from lobbyists who Brock said are urging local governments to leave tobacco policies alone. “It’s definitely a David-and-Goliath type of situation,” she said. “They have a lot of resources. Especially [for] smaller cities, I think it can be kind of intimidating.”
Brittany Adams, a spokeswoman for RAI Services Company, a subsidiary of Reynolds American Inc., said via e-mail that changes to tobacco legislation should be handled at the federal level.
Weighing the consequences
The Tobacco 21 movement began in 2005 in Needham, Mass. Since then, five states and hundreds of cities have adopted ordinances increasing the sales age for tobacco. The campaign was supported by studies in scientific journals and endorsed by a number of health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
Health advisory boards across the suburbs were convinced, including Bloomington’s. “Anytime you’re talking about cigarettes, there’s nobody that hasn’t been touched,” said Eileen O’Connell, Bloomington’s health promotion and planning manager.
Other cities seem conflicted. The Robbinsdale City Council passed a resolution to support raising the sales age but stopped short of actually requiring businesses to do it.
Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik was concerned that barring retailers from selling tobacco to those under 21 would affect other aspects of their business. Retailers say that adults between 18 and 21 make up a small amount of tobacco buyers.
“That may include gasoline, car washes, convenience items, food and beverage,” Slavik said. “We’re really waiting to hear from those retailers to hear what those impacts may be.”
Since the sales age in Edina was raised this summer, Lang’s One Stop Market has had to turn away only a few 18- to 20-year-olds, co-owner Anita Lang said. “It hasn’t impacted my bottom line a lot,” she said.
Lang said she continues to believe the issue should be handled at the state level. “Otherwise it’s discriminating an entire area,” she said.
O’Connell said the transition for stores in Edina and St. Louis Park has gone smoothly. She asked her 17-year-old grandson, who goes to an Edina school, if he had classmates who were upset the city raised the sales age. Yes, he said — the teenagers who couldn’t get cigarettes. “And I was comfortable with that,” she said.
Tobacco wars continue
The movement is spreading. This summer, New Jersey, Maine and Oregon passed provisions to raise the sales age. In Minnesota, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, introduced a bill at the end of this year’s session to start the conversation at the Capitol.
Groups like the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota and the anti-smoking nonprofit ClearWay Minnesota are going up against lobbyists representing an industry that spent nearly $500,000 in the state last year and in the first part of 2017. A tax package approved this year ended an automatic tax increase on cigarettes that was enacted in 2013, dealing a blow to anti-smoking interests.
“We are seeing greater engagement by the tobacco industry and opponents of these ordinances at the local level more than we’ve seen,” said Molly Moilanen, director of public affairs for ClearWay.
George Parman, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Altria, one of the largest tobacco producers in the world, said via e-mail that the corporation opposes changes in tobacco legislation at the municipal level. “When adult tobacco consumers shift their purchases to other towns … legitimate retailers and wholesalers lose sales and revenues, with no public policy benefit,” Parman said.
Nevertheless, Dr. Rob Crane, president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, which funds Tobacco 21, said he expects more than a dozen Minnesota cities will raise the sales age in the next six months before anything happens statewide.
Crane said raising the sales age is only one piece of the puzzle. Other efforts, such as Minneapolis and St. Paul’s restrictions on the sale of flavored and menthol products, are also important. The St. Louis Park City Council voted unanimously Monday to ban sales of flavored tobacco products, not including menthol, and final approval is expected in December.
Meanwhile, ClearWay is reaching out to more cities to consider Tobacco 21-style legislation. Brock said she is looking forward to the findings from the next Minnesota Student Survey, which could show the impact that new restrictions are having on tobacco sales.
“There tends to be a general perception that we’ve won the war on tobacco,” she said. “I think that’s not true.”
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753