Stephanie Rome and John Benz would be too young to buy their cigarettes in Minneapolis, under the City Council’s proposed smoking age of 21.
Though the two 20-year-olds shared a Camel cigarette this week near the Minneapolis Community & Technical College campus, they disagree on whether it’s a worthwhile idea. “It’s good intentions,” said Benz, an MCTC student. “In the future, I hope that people don’t smoke cigarettes.”
Rome, who started smoking at age 15, dismissed the idea, although she acknowledged it would make it harder for young people to buy tobacco. “They have to go way out of the city to buy cigarettes at that point,” she said.
On Monday, a Minneapolis City Council committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance that would ban tobacco sales, including nicotine vaporizer or e-cigarette devices, to those under 21. The proposal is sparking mixed reactions among young smokers and opposition from tobacco dealers who stand to lose business.
Minneapolis hopes to join seven other Minnesota cities that have already increased the age for tobacco sales to 21. Some state lawmakers want to take the change statewide.
“The dominos are falling very quickly on this,” said City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who is co-authoring the proposal with Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.
“What you have today occurring is you have a lot of 18-year-olds that are still in high school that are able to buy cigarettes and give them to their friends that are underage,” Johnson said. “What you don’t see a lot of is 21-year-olds hanging out with kids under the age of 18. This will certainly put a dent in that pipeline of tobacco to underage kids.”
Cap O’Rourke, policy director for the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota, a trade association that represents the three vapor-only stores in Minneapolis, opposes the proposed restrictions on the sales of electronic cigarettes and called it a “misguided effort.”
“We have a number of customers who are in that 18 to 21 range who started smoking when they were 14, 15 years old,” O’Rourke said. “When you take away vaping, you are essentially telling them that the method that they chose to quit is no longer working.”
Tim Koester, co-owner of four vaping retail stores in the Twin Cities, including Smokeless Smoking in northeast Minneapolis, said he has seen a 15 to 20 percent decrease in revenue after Bloomington passed an ordinance that raised the age to buy vaping products to 21 in late 2017.
He worries that he would see larger reductions in sales in Minneapolis if the city passes the proposed ordinance. He said his customer base is made up of former cigarette smokers, some who acquired the habit when they were young.
“There’s lots of 18- to 21-year-olds who are moving into adulthood and looking for alternatives to cigarettes,” he said. “I worry about how that limits their choice and being able to make a choice between vapor products and other tobacco products.”
Johnson said traditional tobacco products and e-cigarettes both have health consequences. He said he heard from teachers complaining about students smoking e-cigarettes in the middle of the classrooms.
“For some teenagers these e-cigarettes seem like the cool thing,” he said. “They are electronic, they light up, there’s this cool puff of vapor. It seems like it might be less harmful than cigarettes, so in some ways it’s easier for individuals to justify starting off this practice.”
MCTC student Taylor Tadlock, 20, started smoking at age 12, and he said he craves it to calm his nerves. He quit using other drugs, such as marijuana, “but the one thing I haven’t quit yet is cigarettes,” he said.
Tadlock said he recently went to Edina to buy cigarettes, but found out he couldn’t. Edina was the first city in Minnesota to raise its minimum age for tobacco purchases age to 21.
If Minneapolis raises its tobacco-buying age to 21, he said, young people would find other ways to get cigarettes, such as asking older friends to buy for them. But he regrets his own decision to smoke and doesn’t object to the goal of stopping teens from lighting up.
“It’s bad smoking young, because when I try to run in the gym, it’s really tough,” Tadlock said. “I stink like cigarettes a lot. It’s just not the best thing for you.”
David Lobos, 21, who wants to major in marketing and psychology at MCTC, had bought a pack of cigarettes as soon as he turned 18. Had the city introduced its higher tobacco age back then, Lobos said, he would have waited until he turned 21.
“Now that I’m getting older, I want to start thinking about kids,” Lobos said. “I would want my kids to wait until they are 21. You are more mature. You can make better decisions at that point. When you are 18, you are still a little too young.”