Six months since Eden Prairie raised its tobacco purchasing age to 21, it's business as usual for retailers.

Hani Kotifani owns Anderson Market, at 8795 Columbine Road, which sells tobacco products and has a sign stating the new purchasing age of 21 on its display of cigarettes. He estimated that tobacco products make up around 10% of his store's sales and said that while it's "gone down a little bit" since the city ordinance went into effect on Feb. 1 of this year, he hasn't felt a huge impact on his bottom line.

When the Eden Prairie City Council voted on Tobacco 21 in 2018, City Council member Brad Aho was the sole dissenting voice. He expressed concern that the regulation would drive customers away from Eden Prairie retailers to other cities where the purchasing age is 18 and said it would be more appropriate for the state or county to pass regulation. But just across the border in Chanhassen, where the tobacco purchasing age is still 18, Eden Prairie's ordinance hasn't affected sales at Green Leaf Tobacco, said manager Mo Mirib.

"We're slow, very slow," he said.

Pat MulQueeny, president of the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce, hasn't heard directly from local business owners who sell tobacco, but he noted that increased adoption of Tobacco 21 would create a more "level playing field" for those competing for customers.

Tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping are in the spotlight, locally and on a national stage. On July 9, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 to raise its tobacco purchasing age to 21 beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, where 11 cities, including Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, already have Tobacco 21 legislation. The statewide Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in workplaces and indoor public places, was amended in the last legislative session to include e-cigarette and vaping devices. In Washington, D.C., on July 24-25, the House Oversight Committee held hearings examining e-cigarette manufacturer Juul’s role in the youth nicotine epidemic, a word used by the U.S. Surgeon General and by anti-smoking advocates.

The push for a higher purchasing age comes as e-cigarettes threaten a decades-long downward trend in smoking rates, particularly among young people. In 2017, 26.4% of Minnesotan high school students had used a tobacco product in the past 30 days, up 7% from 2014, according to the most recent survey data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

For e-cigarettes, the upward trend among high school students is steeper:

  • 19.2% had used or tried e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, up 49% from 2014.
  • 37.7% have ever tried e-cigarettes, up 33% from 2014.
  • 63.6% of students who currently use e-cigarettes reported using menthol or other flavored e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.
  • 21.5% of current e-cigarette users have never tried any conventional tobacco product.
  • 62.4% of high school and 57.4% of middle school e-cigarette users got their e-cigarettes from friends.

Laura Smith is the senior public affairs manager for Clearway Minnesota, an advocacy group that aims to end tobacco's health risks to Minnesotans, called the recent Hennepin County Tobacco 21 adoption "a big victory," if a largely symbolic one. The county regulates just a few tobacco retailers, mostly airport businesses that aren't regulated by a city or other governing body, she explained. Still, Hennepin is the state's most populous county, and its ordinance brings the 40 Minnesota cities or counties with Tobacco 21 rules, which Smith counts as a win. Raising the purchasing age, even by three years, works, she said.

"It's something that we see in the data," Smith said, citing a study by the National Academy of Medicine that estimated Tobacco 21 would reduce smoking among teens age 15-17 by 25%.

"It's really top-of-mind for people who work with youth," she added. "We continue to look for research and data."

Clearway is funded by money that tobacco companies pay to the state, but that funding source will end in 2022, Smith said. The organization is seeking "creative" funding sources to continue its work, which is vital as e-cigarettes continue to transform the tobacco landscape, she said.

"Certainly we'll be back at it in 2020," Smith said. "Who knows what's going to happen with the industry between now and then?"

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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