Minnesota lawmakers in both parties announced plans Monday to offer a robust package of anti-nicotine legislation in the face of rapidly rising rates of teen vaping.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said she would renew a push to increase the legal age to buy nicotine products to 21 and ban flavored vape products.
House Democrats said they would go even further, banning all flavored tobacco — including menthol cigarettes — increasing nicotine taxes and banning the internet sale of nicotine products to Minnesotans.
"I can continue seeing people with acute respiratory distress, or we can prevent these things from happening and also hold Big Tobacco accountable," said Rep. Alice Mann, DFL-Lakeville, a physician.
The lawmakers, who will convene again in February, join Gov. Tim Walz, who said recently that he wants the Legislature to increase the legal nicotine age to 21 and ban flavored vape products. Walz's remarks came after a new survey showed a quarter of Minnesota 11th-graders reported using e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days, a 54% increase from 2016.
Many cities around the metro have already increased the nicotine buying age to 21, and Minneapolis and St. Paul have both stepped up regulations on flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes.
Legislative momentum has ramped up at the State Capitol in recent weeks following widespread reports of serious vaping injuries, including dozens in Minnesota.
But legislation at the Capitol is not a sure thing. The nicotine industry remains an influential presence in the state and spends significantly on campaigns, often through national political groups that then funnel money to Minnesota races. In recent years, the industry succeeded in rolling back an automatic tobacco tax increase that was tied to inflation.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, did not hold a hearing on Nelson's nicotine age legislation during the 2019 legislative session. He did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.
Shea Miller, 23, was buying a vape cartridge Monday afternoon at a West St. Paul tobacco shop. He said anyone old enough to vote and serve in the military should be able to buy nicotine, and he doubted the effectiveness of prohibition.
"I think if there's a will, there's a way" to get the product, he said.
And there's evidence that some vape consumers aren't just motivated to get nicotine. They're also motivated voters.
According to a new poll of 4,669 adult vapor consumers in battleground states conducted by GOP public opinion consultants McLaughlin & Associates, "Vapor consumers are vehemently opposed to banning flavors and ... are likely to become single issue voters based on a candidate's position on vapor products, particularly coming out to vote against candidates who support a flavor ban."
But the anti-vaping coalition is broadening, with a major figure in Minnesota business joining the effort in recent months.
Martin Davis, the CEO of the quartz company Cambria and member of the prominent Minnesota family that once owned Sun Country Airlines, is putting money and marketing know-how into a program to help high school students teach other kids about the dangers of vaping.
Davis, who was at the Monday news conference with Nelson and Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, repeated the campaign's simple but muscular message: "They lied. We know."
The new effort has students handing out slickly produced anti-vaping literature at kiosks at Minnetonka High School on Wednesdays and Fridays, with plans to expand to other schools in the future.
Ally Gammill, 16, a Minnetonka High School junior involved in the school's "They Lied, We Know" program, said students' response to the booth has been both positive and negative so far. "It's doing good things in terms of teenagers talking to teenagers," Gammill said, adding that while some kids take the information seriously, others still make jokes about it. "Some people are just not willing to accept the severity of the situation."
The anti-vaping campaign takes direct aim at Altria, the maker of Marlboro brands and a major investor in Juul, a company that currently dominates the vaping market.
"Altria doesn't want you to quit using tobacco products. They want to hook you," a brochure reads.
Altria released a statement to the Star Tribune endorsing legislation that would increase the tobacco age to 21.
"Altria strongly supports Minnesota lawmakers raising the legal age of purchase for all tobacco products, including e-vapor, to 21. This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates."
Azucema Esparza, 17, vice president of a group at Mendota Heights' Henry Sibley High School called ALMAS, said "bathrooms have become vaping rooms." At the Monday news conference, Yasiel Santiago-Castillo, a senior at Sibley, showed off a hoodie whose drawstrings could be used to inhale nicotine vapor.
Pushing the age requirement to 21 would decrease teen vape usage, said Esparza, whose group forges alliances between white and Latino students. "I know a lot of 18-year-olds," she said, referring to people who could buy vape products for her. "But I don't know a lot of 21-year-olds."