ST PAUL, Minn. — The idea of raising the age to buy tobacco products in Minnesota has been gaining momentum, but it's still up to state lawmakers to make the call between now and the end of session May 20.
"This is go time, this is the time to flood the phone lines, the emails of your legislator, and particularly those legislators on conference committee for Health and Human Services," Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican, remarked Friday.
Sen. Nelson appeared at a press conference organized by Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of 60 groups that has led the push to raise the age to 21 for cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products than can now be purchased at age 18.
Nelson and other lawmakers were surrounded by school children to punctuate the dangers of addiction posed by early smoking and vaping. The entire Tobacco 21 campaign has involved youth who've witness an epidemic of vaping among their middle school and high school peers.
"It is super, super easy for students to conceal these devices," Anna Grace Hottinger, a student at Mounds View High School, explained.
"And frequently teachers and parents mistake e-cigarettes for flash drives and other devices commonly found in our backpacks."
She said students often find school bathrooms locked by their cohorts who are trying to conceal their vaping.
The new tobacco restrictions were in the House version of the Health and Human Services omnibus bill, but not in the Senate's version. The HHS Conference Committee is currently working to hammer out a final version before the session ends May 20.
"I am a father of two girls, two teenagers and I was blown away when middle school hit and what I heard about e-cigs and vaping," Sen. Paul Anderson, a Plymouth Republican, remarked.
Anderson worked on the Freedom To Breath Act in 2007, a member of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's staff. He noted that predictions that banning indoor smoking would ruin the restaurant and bar industry didn't materialize.
"A lot of these kids weren't even born yet when we did that. My kids can’t imagine going to a restaurant where people are smoking!"
The vaping industry hasn't actively opposed the change but is still called out by those who are worried about nicotine addiction at an early age. They cite research showing 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started smoking before they reached the age of 21.
"There’s a huge misperception about the dangers of e-cigarettes, especially since they smell and taste like mango, candies and a variety of other very attractive flavors," Dr. Peter Dehnel, a pediatrician and member of the Twin Cities Medical Society told reporters.
"That’s what this is really all about. Kids realizing what their lives can, and will, be like if they stay away from tobacco."
He said research has shown nicotine changes developing brains at a time when children haven't had a chance to understand the implications of a lifetime of tobacco use.
Opponents to the idea often point out that 18 is considered old enough to vote and serve in the military in combat, so people in that age group should be trusted to make their own decisions about tobacco.
But Molly Moilanen, the co-chair of Minnesotans for Smoke-Free Generation, said 18-year-old smokers are often a social source of tobacco products for teens who aren't old enough to them legally.
People who are 21, she asserted, are less likely to be in the same social circle with middle school and high school students.
"Tobacco 21 will make it a lot harder for older teens to be those social sources to younger kids."