Higher age for tobacco sales set for public hearing

A proposed ordinance that would raise the minimum age for tobacco sales in Minneapolis to 21 is set for a public hearing in May.

Edina was the first Minnesota city to rise the age for tobacco sales with an ordinance that took effect last year. Since then, St. Louis Park, Bloomington, Plymouth and North Mankato have all raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 from 18.

In March, the City Council’s Public Health, Environment, Civil Rights and Engagement Committee voted to set a May 14 public hearing on the ordinance co-authored by City Council members Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) and Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5). If passed, their ordinance would take effect Aug. 1.

“We want Minneapolis to join the growing list of Minnesota cities taking this common sense approach to the serious public health issue of tobacco use,” Johnson wrote in a Facebook post.

“When we speak to smokers trying to quit, they tell us how they wish they never started in the first place. With 95 (percent) of smokers starting before the age of 21, our focus should be on preventing youth from picking up their first cigarette,” he continued, citing statistics compiled by ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-smoking nonprofit established in 1998 with funds from the state’s $6.1 billion settlement with tobacco companies.

The City Council last year approved new restrictions on the sale of menthol tobacco products, which anti-smoking advocates say are marketed to young people and the African-American community. An ordinance that takes effect Aug. 1 limits the sale of menthol products to liquor stores and tobacco shops that admit only adults.

The ordinance prompted concern from some small business owners who said the restrictions would cut into sales. In an interview, Johnson acknowledged his proposed ordinance could raise those same concerns again.

Johnson said 18- to 20-year-old customers account for only about 2–4 percent of tobacco sales in most stores. The loss in sales would be a “tiny, tiny number” for most of them, he argued.

“We’ve got to compare that to the costs of these young people starting smoking,” he said. “… We’re all paying for that in our health insurance premiums.”

Johnson said Minneapolis becoming the sixth city to increase the minimum age for tobacco sales would add to the momentum building behind a new statewide age limit. He noted that Rep. Dario Anselmo (R–Edina) introduced legislation this year to do just that.

“It’s not about hurting people who smoke, it’s about preventing people from smoking in the first place,” Johnson said.