Anti-smoking bills on the move at the MN Capitol

Tobacco opponents are pushing state lawmakers this year for tighter smoking restrictions, which they contend would help save lives and protect Minnesota children.

Members of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee heard testimony Tuesday on proposals to increase the smoking age to 21 statewide, regulate electronic cigarettes and fund programs to help people quit smoking.

The panel advanced all three bills.

With several Minnesota cities now requiring a person to be 21 or older to purchase cigarettes, some anti-smoking advocates want the change to go statewide.

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“This idea is so popular, it’s become a movement with a name: Tobacco 21,” said state Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, the chief sponsor of the bill.

Edelson’s bill would raise the age for purchasing tobacco and tobacco delivery products from 18 to 21 throughout Minnesota. It would also increase penalties for violations. Edelson said the higher age will help keep young people from getting hooked.

“We cannot sit by and watch our kids develop lifetime addictions,” she said. “It is time to stand up for our youth.”

A representative of the Minnesota Retailers Association, Bruce Nustad, did not speak for or against the bill. But he raised concerns about the higher penalties and the possibility of losing purchases to neighboring states.

Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch, said she is sympathetic to the bill. But she suggested that the change might be better done as a phase-in.

“I do however have some concerns about taking away a current right from legal adults,” Neu said.

Another bill would restrict the use of electronic cigarettes by including the product in the Clean Indoor Air Act’s definition of smoking. As with current law, local officials could enact stricter regulations.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, described e-cigarette use as a health threat that must be addressed.

“These are strong, addictive substances, and we know they are marketing to our kids,” Halverson said.

Halvorson, the bill's chief sponsor, disputes the industry claim that e-cigarettes help smokers quit tobacco. But Cap O’Rourke of the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota argued that they do. He stressed that the average customer is 38 years old and is trying to quit after years of smoking.

“They’re able to scale back the nicotine over time,” O’Rourke said.

The third smoking-related bill heard by the committee would provide funding for tobacco cessation services. The unspecified funding would be allocated to the state Department of Health.