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Lawmakers vow to raise legal tobacco age

Vaping crisis and lung injuries spark renewed sense of urgency over teen vaping and smoking

ST PAUL, Minn. — Smoke and steam dominated the talk at the State Capitol Monday, as two groups of lawmakers held events pressing the case for raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

They assert a statewide rule would be more effective than the current patchwork of Minnesota cities and counties that have moved forward with Tobacco 21 ordinances inside their borders.

Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican, and Rep. Laurie Halverson, an Eagan Democrat both touted packages of bipartisan legislation aimed at keeping nicotine-infused smoking and vaping products out of the hands of high schoolers.

“Big problems require all hands on deck. And that’s what we have here,” Sen. Nelson declared.

She noted the Tobacco 21 bill stalled last session in the Senate, but that was before Minnesotans knew the extent of the teen vaping crisis or the epidemic of vaping-related lung injuries.

"Seeing what we've seen with this vaping epidemic -- the dangers, the flavors -- I just don't think there's anyone that's in the same place as they were a year ago," Nelson remarked.

One of Nelson's bills is aimed at youth education and tobacco prevention, including more warnings inside the schools that have become ground zero for the vaping epidemic.  

Rep. Heather Edelson, an Edina Democrat, said it's the legislature's responsibility to counteract hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on marketing tobacco to children, and producing flavors that are attractive to teens.

"It’s no longer just lawmakers. It’s our students saying, 'My lungs hurt. I didn’t know!' We’ve allowed companies to target them saying it’s better than smoking."

Nelson and Edelson congratulated Cambria Marketing for the #escapethevape student awareness campaign known as They Lied: We Know -- something that has already begun at Minnetonka High School and could catch on in other places too.

The House DFL's fight against nicotine includes a proposed increase in tobacco taxes and ban on all flavored tobacco products including menthol cigarettes.

"There’s no wait-and-see to see if these things are dangerous," Rep. Halverson told reporters.

"We are going to prohibit flavors, the sale of flavored cigarettes and vaping, including menthol. Menthol is the easiest way to start smoking and one of the hardest ones to quit."

Points of contention in the session may arise over whether to ban just flavored vaping materials only, or to extend it to cigarettes.  Sen. Nelson said she hasn't studied the flavored cigarette issue but is already convinced flavored vapes have got to go.

"When you take kid-friendly flavors, and pair them with high nicotine and then market them to adolescents, it is critical that we put a stop to that."

Nelson said the owner of a vaping shop in her district flatly told her that flavored products account for all of the youth demand.

Juul and Altria, the tobacco giant formerly known as Phillip Morris, have both expressed support for Tobacco 21 in general, but are waiting to see the specific language in the bills as they're crafted in the 2020 session.

Altria has acknowledged that most 18-year-old tobacco users are still in high school, which makes it easier for younger students to get their hands on products they shouldn't be using.