Ordinance prohibits tobacco sales to those under 21

Supporters of the ordinance wore green T-shirts to the City Council meeting. Photo by Sony Chechik

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted May 25 to raise the minimum purchasing age for all tobacco products to 21.

Council members shared personal stories at the meeting that encouraged them to support the ordinance, known as Tobacco 21, and thanked the community advocators for their work to bring about change. Following its passage, a largely green T21 T-shirt-clad audience and council members celebrated with a standing ovation.

“The best way to help someone quit smoking is to prevent them from starting in the first place,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson (Ward 12), co-author of the ordinance. “By making it harder for teens to get their hands on tobacco products, fewer will start smoking.”

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 90percent of youth start smoking by 18 and 95 percent start by 21.

“This is a great next step for the city to take. It’s a really sound policy that is backed by a lot of science,” said Betsy Brock of the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota.

According to the Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey, the youth smoking rate is on the rise for the first time in years due to the growing presence of e-cigarettes and vapes.

Supporters argue this policy will help protect youth from being disproportionately marketed to by tobacco companies.

“We have an obligation to our residents to protect our youth from a predatory tobacco industry,” said co-author Council Member Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5).

Minneapolis has previously enacted other measures to restrict tobacco sales appealing to youth. Beginning in January 2016, the sale of flavored tobacco productswas restricted to specialty tobacco shops that only admit adults 21 and older.

In 2016, Chicago raised its legal purchasing age to 21. The following year the city saw an immediate decline in the rate of cigarette and e-cigarette use among youth 18–20.

Last May, Edina became the first city in Minnesota to raise the minimum purchasing age of tobacco products to 21. Since then, Bloomington, Falcon Heights, North Mankato, Plymouth, Shoreview and St. Louis Park have followed suit.

“Seeing these other cities lead on this has really helped inspire this movement and give us additional energy to get this done,” Johnson said.

So far, more than 300 cities and five states have raised the minimum tobacco purchasing age to 21.

Lance Klatt, executive director of the Minnesota Service Station & Convenience Store Association, said he worries about T21’s impact on local businesses.

“An increase to 21 will only add to the carnage of what these small business owners may be facing,” he said.

Meghan Shey, a representative from the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, said Minneapolis businesses are already struggling with the rising minimum wage, property taxes and other tobacco restrictions.

“I’m not surprised, but certainly disappointed,” she said, following the passage of T21.

A 2012 report from the U.S. Department Health and Human Services showed young people ages 18–20 account for only a fraction of the tobacco market but provide a majority of the tobacco to minors who smoke.

Ellison said, “We know we want to support our businesses, but nothing can come at the expense of our youth and our community at large.”

According to a report from the National Academy of Medicine using state-specific data, a statewide increase of the tobacco purchasing age of 21 similar to T21 would prevent 30,000 youth from starting to smoke within 15 years.

Mayor Jacob Frey, council members and advocates are now looking at pushing the Minneapolis law to the state level.

In a press conference following the meeting, Frey signed T21 into law saying, “let’s go save some lives.”