Hennepin County officials are considering raising the tobacco sales age from 18 to 21 for the jurisdictions they license, a measure that’s aimed at keeping tobacco out of the hands of youth.
The proposal, discussed last week at a County Board committee meeting, would affect five cities on the county’s western side — Greenfield, Mound, Rockford, Rogers and St. Bonifacius — as well as Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
It also would prohibit the sale of cigars under $3, ban the sale of flavored tobacco products outside of adult-only tobacco stores, and raise the minimum age of sellers of tobacco products from 16 to 18 years old.
Supporters say the combination of measures presents a unique opportunity to reduce youth addiction rates.
The board is scheduled to discuss and possibly modify the ordinance on June 25 and vote on it July 9.
If the ordinance passes, Hennepin County will join nearly 500 jurisdictions across the country that have raised the tobacco sales age to 21.
But it also would become the first county in Minnesota to approve all four measures in the ordinance, Public Health Director Susan Palchick said.
“There is just science behind each one of the recommendations for their effectiveness, and we want to do whatever we can to reduce youth access to tobacco products,” Palchick said.
Ten Hennepin County cities, allowed under state law to license and enforce their own tobacco policies, already require tobacco purchasers to be 21.
They are Bloomington, Brooklyn Center, Eden Prairie, Edina, Excelsior, Minneapolis, Plymouth, Richfield, Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park.
Nearly 20% of 11th-graders in Hennepin County use tobacco, and 1 in 7 deaths in the county are tobacco-related, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Students shared their concerns about the prevalence of tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes, in school at last week’s public hearing.
Retailers, however, believe some aspects of the proposal go too far.
“We certainly understand the [sales age] portion relative to trying to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids in high schools,” said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association. “[But] the flavor ban portion stands to have a significant impact on revenue or sales.”
The language of the ordinance would prohibit stores (aside from adult-only tobacco shops) from selling popular tobacco flavors, such as mint, menthol and evergreen.
Nustad said that retailers have seen the impact of flavor restrictions on businesses in other areas.
“We know of a retailer that’s in bankruptcy based on lost sales, so we know that the flavor ban portion of the ordinance would have a pretty big impact on retailers in affected cities,” Nustad said.
Palchick said that the potential short-term economic losses should be weighed against the long-term health costs.
She cited Health Department data that show smoking-related illnesses cost Hennepin County nearly $600 million annually.
Teens who start smoking often start with flavored products and are sometimes unaware that the flavored USB-like product they are using contains nicotine, said Laura Smith, senior public affairs manager for nonprofit ClearWay Minnesota.
“Even a few years ago, e-cigarettes weren’t delivering as much nicotine content as they are today. The Juul [brand] especially has really perfected this high level of nicotine delivery,” Smith said.
Smith believes action by the County Board would send a message to state lawmakers that they are serious about the sales ban measure that failed in the Legislature during the last session.
“It really sends a strong message that we’re standing up for kids,” Smith said. “There’s a growing consensus that we need to protect kids, especially in the face of this epidemic of new tobacco use and our kids being targeted by the industry.”
While waiting for Hennepin County’s decision, Smith said she hoped to see continued support for reducing tobacco usage in communities across Minnesota. The state now counts 36 cities and counties that have raised the tobacco sales age to 21.
“It’s really, really cool that they’re considering this strong policy that has a few different aspects that we know would be successful in reducing use tobacco use,” Smith said.
“But in the meantime, we can’t let our kids wait.”