Edina poised to become first Minn. city to make tobacco buying age 21

Cigarettes for sale
Any opposition to Edina's plan to raise the tobacco-buying age is from retailers who sell tobacco products, the mayor says.
Gene J. Puskar | AP 2015

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland thinks his city is starting a movement in Minnesota.

The Twin Cities suburb is poised to become the first city in the state to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. The City Council is expected to approve the measure Tuesday evening.

Hovland compares the change to a move to eliminate smoking in public places.

"All of that had its genesis at the local level," Hovland said. "And it percolated up to the state Legislature where finally something got done about it."

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The proposed tobacco age ordinance has broad community support in Edina, according to the mayor. Any opposition is from retailers who sell tobacco products, he said.

National Association of Tobacco Outlets executive director Tom Briant said he speaks for 50,000 stores across the country, including some in Edina.

Briant is convinced the ordinance won't curb youth tobacco use because people will simply drive to stores in nearby communities to buy what they want.

"What that means for Edina retailers is they will lose about 5 percent of their tobacco sales," Briant said. "But it gets worse. Those same people will then buy their gasoline, their snacks, beverages and other products at the stores in the neighboring suburbs as well."

Hovland understands there will be some economic impact on local stores.

"We just think on balance it's more important that this tobacco age purchase be raised to 21 from 18 for these public-health purposes," said Hovland. "On balance there's a stronger impact there than there is an adverse economic impact on some of the dispensers of tobacco products."

Dr. Caleb Schultz said he's heard all the arguments about why raising the age to buy tobacco won't work, but he said the proposed ordinance is supported by data.

Schultz, a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center, serves on the Edina Community Health Commission. When asked what he hopes to achieve in Edina, Schultz pointed to a study from a Boston suburb that was one of the first to raise the legal tobacco purchase age to 21 over a decade ago.

"Needham, Mass., was essentially a public-health island having a tobacco-21 ordinance in place," Schultz said. "Tobacco 21 cut the youth smoking rate in half in that city. The drop was three times greater than the surrounding communities."

Retailers also argue the ordinance is contradictory because it punishes them economically, yet doesn't make it illegal for those under 21 to possess or use tobacco. Schultz calls that a distraction from the primary issue. He contends the idea is not to punish kids, but to make tobacco less accessible so fewer kids start smoking.

Groups trying to eliminate tobacco use in Minnesota see Edina as an important win.

"We see Edina as the first step and really hope that other localities take notice and follow suit, and eventually we hope the Legislature will take a close look at this as well," said Molly Moilanen, director of public affairs for ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit focused on reducing tobacco use.

She said raising the tobacco age is not a silver bullet, but another tool to help reduce youth smoking.

Minnesota Department of Health data show that in 2014, about 19 percent of high school students admitted using some form of tobacco in the past 30 days, down sharply from 26 percent in 2011.

Nationwide, more than 220 cities in 16 states have raised the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21, according to the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. Hawaii and California have passed laws to change the age statewide.

Briant tracks legislation and said 26 states are considering similar laws, with 10 of those failing to pass a law this year.

"There is some real resistance even at the state level to adopt these," said Briant. "And it's because you're dealing with an adult age issue."

Tobacco age legislation has not been introduced at the Minnesota Legislature.

But Edina officials say based on calls from other communities, they expect the idea to catch on in towns and cities around the state.