The statewide tobacco sale age changed to 21 Saturday. Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation celebrates the landmark Tobacco 21 law that is the result of broad efforts from bipartisan leaders, local communities and a nationwide movement to protect children.

“Minnesota’s Tobacco 21 movement began with a few concerned residents and physicians and ultimately gained the support of more than 75 communities, thousands of youth and parents, and lawmakers from all over the state,” said Molly Moilanen, Vice President at ClearWay MinnesotaSM and Co-Chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation. “Tobacco 21 is not the last step – but it’s an important first step toward preventing youth tobacco addiction.”

Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation is a coalition of more than 60 organizations that share a common goal of reducing youth tobacco use and ending commercial tobacco’s harm for good. The coalition is united behind four major policies that reduce youth smoking and nicotine addiction, including raising the tobacco sale age to 21, increasing tobacco prices, prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products and investing in tobacco prevention programs.

Urgent action is needed to combat rising youth tobacco use and protect lung health, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic and new warnings of suspected vaping-associated lung injuries (EVALI). The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey found that more than a quarter of 11th-graders and more than one in 10 8th-graders used e-cigarettes in the past month. From 2016 to 2019, eighth-grade vaping rates nearly doubled and overall, rising youth vaping rates erased two decades of progress to reduce youth tobacco use. E-cigarette use is harmful to young people because nicotine in any form harms the developing adolescent brain and can prime youth for addiction to cigarettes and other substances.

Minnesota’s Tobacco 21 law gained strong bipartisan support in both chambers and was swiftly signed into law by Governor Tim Walz. The state law follows federal action to raise the tobacco age. In December 2019, the U.S. Congress made the federal tobacco age 21, and it immediately went into effect. In addition to aligning with the federal tobacco age, Minnesota’s Tobacco 21 law updates relevant state tobacco definitions, penalties and signage requirements. The law aims to ensure strong compliance and enforcement of Tobacco 21, without punishing young people targeted by the tobacco industry with tactics including social media influencers, kid-friendly flavors and stealthy products.

The goal of Tobacco 21 is to stop tobacco addiction before it starts, since nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started before 21. A seminal study by the National Academy of Medicine estimated that Tobacco 21 would lead to enormous health gains, including a 25 percent reduction in smoking initiation among 15-to-17-year-olds.

Unfortunately, Tobacco 21 alone will not be enough to reverse the state’s skyrocketing youth tobacco rates. That’s why Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation urges lawmakers to adopt comprehensive tobacco prevention policies. Removing highly attractive flavored tobacco products from the market and investing in sustainable prevention programs are the next steps needed to ensure every Minnesota child grows up free from tobacco addiction. Several legislative proposals to achieve those goals advanced in the 2020 Legislative Session but were halted by the legislature’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The burden of tobacco addiction and disease remains unconscionably high in diverse communities, in large part because menthol tobacco products have been heavily marketed toward African Americans, LGBTQ, youth and other priority populations. Among African American smokers – who have been targeted by aggressive advertising in Black magazines and neighborhoods and other tactics – 88 percent smoke menthol, compared to 22 percent of white smokers. The U.S. Food and Drug Association’s refusal to include menthol tobacco in its 2009 ban on flavored cigarettes has institutionalized these disparities and cost precious lives. Research estimates that if menthol had been banned in 2010 when all other flavors were disallowed, by 2050 there would be a 10 percent reduction in overall smoking prevalence and up to 633,252 lives would be saved, a third of whom would be African Americans. Minnesota can end the sale of all flavored tobacco products — especially menthol — to improve the health of Black communities and protect youth from addiction.

Minnesota also faces a huge loss in tobacco prevention resources at the same time the state faces a youth tobacco epidemic. The CDC recommends the state invest $53 million in tobacco prevention and cessation efforts each year, yet Minnesota only spends about a third of that amount and resources are declining. ClearWay Minnesota currently funds the majority of the state’s spending on tobacco prevention and will sunset in 2021. Minnesota can invest in sustainable prevention programs by dedicating new or existing tobacco revenue — which totaled $780 million in 2019 — to prevention. In addition to preventing youth tobacco use, these efforts could ensure that every Minnesota resident is protected from the predatory tactics of the tobacco industry.

The Tobacco 21 law, COVID-19 pandemic and suspected EVALI cases will hopefully provide additional motivation for Minnesotans to make a quit attempt. An estimated 574,000 Minnesotans still smoke and many want to quit. Early studies have found COVID-19 may be particularly dangerous for people with lungs weakened by chronic disease, asthma and smoking. Thankfully, all residents can access free quit-tobacco help through programs offered by Quit Partner. Minnesotans can call 1-800-QUIT NOW or visit quitpartnermn.com to access free services, support and medication. The state is also offering a program tailored to teens called My Life, My Quit.

“Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation is grateful for lawmakers, advocates and partner organizations that have stood up to Big Tobacco and pushed for bold action to protect our kids,” Moilanen added. “Minnesotans are hungry for even more meaningful action to prevent youth addiction — let’s get it done.”

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