Minneapolis set to prohibit tobacco sales to those under 21

Some of the many menthol tobacco products sold at the Penwood Market.
Some of the many menthol tobacco products sold at the Penwood Market convenience store in Minneapolis.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2017

It may soon be illegal in Minneapolis to sell tobacco to anyone under the age of 21. Council members are expected to vote next week on a measure that would make the city the latest in Minnesota to treat smoking like drinking in the eyes of the law.

A year ago the Twin Cities suburb of Edina became the first community in the state to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21. Since then a half dozen others have followed suit including North Mankato in February. Just last week Shoreview and Falcon Heights passed tobacco 21 ordinances, as supporters call them.

At a Minneapolis City Council committee hearing Monday, dozens of anti-tobacco advocates clad in green T-shirts urged council members to do the same. Among them was Derral Pratt, who recently turned 21.

"Growing up in Minneapolis, a lot of my friends and peers began smoking and using e-cigs at a very young age. The tobacco industry each year spends billions of dollars marketing to young people who look just like myself. I believe that this is a cycle that needs to be broken," Pratt said.

The measure covers all types of tobacco products — including electronic cigarettes. Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said many of these devices look like pens and flash drives; they appeal to teens and are easy to hide from parents and teachers.

"For the first time in 17 years overall tobacco use has risen and threatens to erode the progress that public health strategies have made, and this is primarily due to e-cigarettes," Musicant said.

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Supporters of the measure say making it illegal for 18- 19- and 20-year-olds to buy tobacco will reduce use among even younger people, because young adults will be less likely to pass on e-cigarettes and other products. And if people don't start smoking in their teens, they'll probably never take up the habit.

"With Minneapolis joining surrounding communities in enacting T-21, this is expected to prevent 30,000 adolescents from becoming smokers over the next 15 years," said Dr. Paul Pentel with Hennepin County Medical Center. "That's a huge impact for a very simple intervention."

Gas station and convenience store owners who oppose the measure attended the hearing, too. Khalid Haidari owns the Pantry Food Market, a corner store in north Minneapolis. Haidari is bracing for a big drop in business after Aug. 1, when new restrictions on menthol cigarettes take effect. Enforcement of the tobacco 21 measure would begin the same day.

Haidari said 18-year-olds are considered adults when it comes to voting and joining the military.

"Where is the freedom for the guy who goes and fights for our country and he cannot smoke a cigarette?" he said. "He could vote for the president, he cannot smoke a cigarette. He can vote for you, he cannot smoke a cigarette."

The Minnesota Retailers Association also opposes the measure. President Bruce Nustad said setting limits on tobacco purchases should be the purview of state lawmakers, not city councils.

"If you're a retailer in Minneapolis, and across the street is another city, that retailer won't be operating under those same restrictions," Nustad said.

There is a bipartisan effort at the Minnesota Legislature to raise the statewide tobacco age. Republican and DFL lawmakers introduced it back in March. But in the final week of session, passage does not appear likely this year.

The tobacco 21 measure in Minneapolis goes before the full City Council on May 25.