Minneapolis could be the next city to ban tobacco sales for anyone under 21, a move that supporters hope will lead to a statewide rise in the legal age for buying cigarettes.
Following the lead of five other Minnesota cities, two Minneapolis City Council members plan to introduce an ordinance Friday that would begin the process of making the legal age for buying tobacco the same as the one for buying alcohol.
In addition to tobacco products, the proposed restrictions would also raise the legal age to 21 for purchasing nicotine vaporizer or e-cigarette devices.
“This is an ordinance that will save lives,” said City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who is co-authoring the measure with Council Member Jeremiah Ellison. “It’s clearly been a good idea that’s gained a lot of traction, because five other cities have passed it. And we think it’s time Minneapolis does so as well.”
Billing it as a public health initiative, Ellison said his north Minneapolis ward includes working-class communities that are targeted disproportionately by tobacco companies, and he believes raising the age to 21 will make it harder for high school kids to get cigarettes.
“This is probably long overdue,” Ellison said.
Yet business owners who have seen similar ordinances in other cities worry the Minneapolis proposal is moving too fast, because it comes just after Minneapolis banned the sale of menthol tobacco from convenience stores, said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association.
According to Nustad, the average convenience store in Minneapolis will already lose $259,000 per year after the flavored-tobacco restrictions go into effect in August.
“Most retailers would like to see the dust settle on that council ordinance before taking up another one that could impact sales,” he said.
The proposed age limit restricts tobacco sales, not usage, meaning that tobacco users 18 to 20 could still buy cigarettes in another city and smoke them in Minneapolis. But Johnson and Ellison say they hope the momentum on raising the age limit will eventually persuade lawmakers to enact the policy statewide.
“I’m under no illusions that we’re going to stop [tobacco use] completely,” said Johnson. “But in the aggregate, we will reduce the number of high schoolers and teenagers who end up smoking by reducing access. So it’s very much in line with other public health policies.”
According to ClearWay Minnesota, one of the groups lobbying in favor of local ordinances raising the age limit, 95 percent of adult smokers start by 21, and the ordinance would reduce the number of 15- to 17-year-old smokers by 25 percent.
“A 21-year-old is probably going to be a lot less likely to give a pack of cigarettes to a 16-year-old,” said Ellison. “I think that’s a big part of how we can prevent underage smoking.”
He said tobacco accounts for just a small portion of sales for convenience stores, and he believes businesses will be able to survive even if they do lose some customers. “I don’t just have a responsibility to corner stores,” Ellison said.
“I have a responsibility to everyone — all the people, residents in my ward as well. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Nustad said his organization will ask the city to study the effect on retail businesses before voting on the change.
“As they look at the health impact, I think retailers would like to see them fully understand the economic impact as well,” he said.
Last May, Edina became the first city in Minnesota to raise the age restriction on tobacco purchases. Plymouth, Bloomington, St. Louis Park and North Mankato have since followed, and lawmakers have introduced a similar measure at the Capitol.
If the Minneapolis proposal moves forward, the council will hold a public hearing in mid-May, Johnson said.