Tobacco

A Minnesota state law prohibits those under age 21 from buying tobacco products.

It’s been about two weeks since Minnesota’s Tobacco 21 law went into effect on Aug. 1. So far, things are going as planned, according to county health officials and sheriffs.

It followed a December federal law changing the legal tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21. Minnesota tobacco and health experts say it’s a big step in clarifying the national law, which was confusing to some states, counties and cities that hadn’t bumped up the purchase age.

Before August, the federal law said people had to be 21 to buy tobacco products. But in Minnesota, only local areas raised the age, while the state remained at 18. Now, every retailer in the state has to comply with the 21+ law.

“I think it was absolutely a good thing that Minnesota did their own statewide law, because it really clears up any kind of confusion,” said Michael Sheldon, marketing director with ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit that works to reduce tobacco use.

That coherence was the law’s main goal, said Patrick Stieg, program specialist with Carver County Public Health.

Stieg said some retailers observed the December federal law, and around 75 Minnesota cities and counties already passed complying ordinances.

YOUTH AND TOBACCO

A Scott County Public Health press release said instances of 11th-grade students vaping e-cigarettes rose 26% between 2016 and last year. This law could be a step in changing that trend.

Raising the age could limit 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds from starting to use tobacco by 25%, the National Academy of Medicine said in 2015.

The age requirement is especially meaningful for younger people as state law makes it harder for teenagers to get their hands on tobacco, meaning less could become addicted.

“It was pretty common for (16- and 17-year-olds) to know someone that was 18 that would simply buy it for them,” Stieg said. “It’s much less likely that they associate or have friends that are 21.”

COMPLIANCE CHECKS

Scott and Carver county sheriffs said it’s hard to note enforcement patterns this early in the game, with just two weeks of the state law in effect.

Carver County Sheriff Jason Kamerud said historically, retailers have complied with age requirements.

“We get so few non-compliances on those checks,” he said.

But with the age change comes compliance check changes.

Law enforcement partners with local teenagers, typically 15 to 17 years old. They’ll enter a gas station or store and ask for tobacco, while an officer waits near the building, making sure the seller asks for an I.D.

Kamerud said the new law increases the pool of compliance-checkers to 18, 19, and 20 year olds. A silver lining.

“Twenty-one would allow us to use adults who can make their own decisions (and have) a larger pool of people,” he said.

Chaska Deputy Police Chief Ben Anderson said the department hasn’t had incidents relating to the new law. There also hasn’t been any enforcement hiccups with retailers or buyers so far, he said.

NOW WHAT?

The Tobacco 21 law came at an appropriate time, the Scott County Public Health release said. COVID-19 can be especially dangerous for people who use tobacco.

“Tobacco 21 is an important step to promote lung health, which is urgently needed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” it stated.

The law follows a string of other campaigns like smoke-free air laws, access to cessation services, prevention, and prohibiting certain flavored tobacco products. This new state law isn’t the end-all, but a continuation of that work, said Stieg.

“With this law, the enforcement really happens at the local level,” Stieg said.

He said next up is reducing social access to tobacco, not just commercial.

“There are lots of things that could still be done to reduce use and addiction,” he added.

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