Minneapolis will have a chance to do the right thing on a critical public health issue when City Council members vote on a proposed ordinance that would ban sales of tobacco and related products to those under 21.
It's no secret that smoking and secondhand smoke create health problems for all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 16 million Americans are living with a smoking-related disease and that smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths. More than 6,000 Minnesotans die every year due to smoking, and the habit causes over $3.2 billion in medical costs annually, according to the state Department of Health. (The department was citing a study by the Center for Prevention, which is part of Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota.)
Those death and disease rates could be significantly reduced if adolescents never started using tobacco. Even though overall U.S. smoking rates have dropped, the CDC estimates that every day another 3,200 Americans 18 or younger try their first cigarette. That early experimentation leads to this sad statistic: About three out of four who take up smoking in high school will smoke regularly as adults.
That's why the proposed Minneapolis ordinance can make a difference. The measure would prohibit the sale of tobacco, nicotine vaporizers or e-cigarettes to those under 21. That, of course, wouldn't prevent the determined 16-year-old from bumming cigarettes from friends or stealing them. But the ban would assure that a teen could not just breeze into a store and buy the addictive product over the counter.
The proposal was approved unanimously by a City Council committee earlier this month following a 2½-hour public hearing. About half of those who spoke supported the ordinance. The others who testified, including business owners who sell tobacco or e-cigarette and vaping products, argued that smoking is a freedom-of-choice issue. Some said that e-cigarettes have fewer health effects than regular cigarettes and should be available to younger users as an alternative.
Though the "alternatives" don't use tobacco, they do include nicotine and other chemicals — substances that can have negative effects on young minds and physical growth. Adolescents are more vulnerable to lifelong, serious health impacts from any addictive substance because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Preventing the addiction before it can take hold matters not only for adolescent well-being, but for society overall. Everyone benefits when fewer teens pick up addictions that can result in death and costly smoking-related diseases.
Minnesota cities took the lead in banning smoking indoors and in many public spaces, and lawmakers followed by passing a statewide ban that became law in 2007.
If Minneapolis raises the tobacco-buying age, the city will join more than 200 jurisdictions nationwide — including seven other Minnesota cities — that have already taken the important step. The ordinance is expected to be considered by the City Council on May 25.
In the interest of public health, council members should follow the lead of their subcommittee and approve the proposal.