Raise Minnesota smoking age to 21, GOP lawmaker says

DFL State Rep. Laurie Halverson, of Eagan, is a co-sponsor of a measure to raise the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. She spoke at a Capitol press conference on March 8, 2018.

Edina Republican state Rep. Dario Anselmo says he’ll push for Minnesota to raise the smoking age to 21 this session.

Anselmo is introducing legislation that would make the age to purchase cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes to age 21, up from age 18. State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, introduced similar legislation last year. Both say they have bipartisan support.

Anselmo says he thinks his fellow Republicans may be hesitant about tougher regulations overall, but that tobacco use is a valid concern.

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.

“This is sort of what government is here for,” he said Thursday. “It’s here for our public safety, national and local. It’s here for our public health, and this is a big one. I tell them if we’re the party that talks about cutting health care costs, its $3 billion direct cost that go to the cost of smoking.”

Anselmo said he’s already working on getting a hearing on his bill, and he hopes that the state will take quicker action than it did with the smoking ban more than a decade ago.

Five Minnesota cities have already voted to raise the age for the purchase of tobacco products to 21. They are Edina, Bloomington, Plymouth, St. Louis Park and North Mankato. And 21 is already the law in four states: Hawaii, California, New Jersey, and Oregon as of January. Maine will join the list of states that have raised the age to buy tobacco to 21 in July.

Anselmo, the former owner of the Fine Line Cafe in downtown Minneapolis, said he knows businesses may struggle with the new regulations. He said his own night club struggled when Minnesota started to enact bar and restaurant smoking bans more than a decade ago.

He said that's part of the reason he's taking the initiative, and getting support from the DFL. Five Minnesota cities, starting with Edina, have already raised the age to buy cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes. Anselmo said one of the lessons he learned from the smoking bans is that city-by-city patchwork only makes such transitions more difficult.

Anti-tobacco advocates say upping the age addresses a significant matter of timing.

95 percent of smokers start before they're 21 and keeping tobacco out of kids hands for as long as possible is the best bet to keep them from starting, according to Molly Moilanen, co-chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke Free Generation.

"Raising the tobacco age will do just that. Increasing that gap between kids and those who can buy tobacco will help keep tobacco will help keep tobacco products away from younger students," Moilanen said.

The Minnesota Department of Health said last month that tobacco use -- reported in a long running survey -- rose for the first time in 17 years last year, lead by a sharp spike in e-cigarette use since 2014. The new age law would also apply to those devices.

Not everybody, though, is ready to join the movement. Convenience store owners say they're already getting hit by flavored tobacco and menthol cigarette bans, new sick time laws and the new minimum wage increase put in place by the city of Minneapolis starting in January.

"Tobacco is a declining category for us, and to be clear, I'm not a tobacco apologist or sympathetic toward that issue whatsoever," says Lonnie McQuirter, a partner at the 36 Lyn Refuel station, a convenience store and gas station in south Minneapolis.

But he says stores like his are already doing a good job of enforcing the current 18 year old age limit. The traditional convenience store business model, long an entry-level enterprise for families, immigrants and minority business owners, still depends on tobacco sales, like them or not.

"There are a lot of complementary purchases made with cigarettes. Our focus isn't on tobacco or traditional convenience store products, so we are looking more toward growing other categories. But as we're managing them down, and we're taking large hits, it can be tough to plan for that and look for other categories," McQuirter said.

And it looks like he and other retailers will find a sympathetic ear at the Capitol. A similar bill was introduced in the state Senate last year and didn't get anywhere. There are other priorities again this year, according to Republican Senate majority leader Paul Gazelka.

"You know we haven't had an in depth conversation about raising that age to 21, but my guess is that there will not be wide spread support for that," Gazelka said.