Governor Tim Walz signed into law a bill that raises the age to purchase tobacco products, including vaping and e-cigarette products popular with young people, to 21.
“At the end of the day, our job is to keep Minnesotans safe,” said Walz said upon taking the action Saturday, May 16. “Raising the age to buy tobacco to 21 will help stop addiction before it starts and save young lives.”
Local health leaders say the Legislature’s bipartisan action and Gov. Walz’s support will have a lasting impact.
“Congratulations and thank you to Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagen for signing Tobacco 21 into law in the state of Minnesota,” said Amy Reineke, community health specialist for Horizon Public Health in Alexandria. “By raising the smoking age from 18 to 21, we can stop these products from getting into the hands of young people in the first place and prevent an entire generation from forming costly and potentially deadly addiction.”
Reineke was also appreciative of the strong support the Tobacco 21 law received from local leaders and community advocates. She noted that Pope County was the second county in the state to adopt Tobacco 21 in December 2018.
Stevens County approved the measure in July of 2019, and in March and April of 2020, Traverse County, the City of Wheaton, Browns Valley and most recently, the City of Alexandria also adopted Tobacco 21, Reineke said.
“Thank you to all of the supporters and elected officials who were a part of making this strong public health policy a reality to protect our youth from a lifetime of tobacco-related death and disease,” Reineke added.
The Minnesota Senate approved the bill by a 43-21 vote on May 13. The House had already passed it on May 9.
The bill brings Minnesota into compliance with the federal government's own Tobacco 21 law, which President Donald Trump signed into law in December after administration officials called youth e-cigarette use an "epidemic." Minnesota's House File 331 prohibits retailers from selling tobacco and e-cigarette products to those under 21, enforceable by a $300 penalty on first offenses and more subsequently.
Some senators on the floor said the bill didn't go far enough, saying the young adults who purchase or possess tobacco products underage should be penalized if they are caught, similar to the state's under 21 alcohol laws.
An amendment to establish penalties for underage consumers was defeated, though, with senators arguing that young people should be deterred from tobacco with education, not legal punishment, and retailers should ultimately be held responsible for their sales.
Other senators said the bill went too far, arguing that if a legal adult can get married, buy a house or serve in the military, the state shouldn't prevent them from smoking or vaping.
The bill ultimately prevailed, as senators cited exponentially increasing rates of youth nicotine addiction and consequential health risks thanks to products like vape pens, which have been reportedly marketed to young consumers.
Lawmakers also said the bill will help clear up local law enforcement agencies' confusion over enforcement after the federal law passed.
Molly Moilanen, a co-chair of the advocacy group Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, said in a written statement following the vote that the bill is "the first step toward reversing the youth tobacco epidemic."
The group also backs efforts to increase tobacco product prices and ban flavored tobacco products in hopes of curbing youth nicotine addiction.
Sarah Mearhoff with Forum News Service contributed to this story.