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Minnesota lawmakers advance bill boosting age to buy tobacco to 21

Pat McKone of the American Lung Association, left, holds up a device used to vape Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, as she describes the increasing rates of nicotine addiction among Minnesota teens. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday, Feb. 12, advanced a proposal to ban the sale of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to those younger than 21.

The House Health and Human Services Policy Committee approved House File 331, which would bar the sale, lending or giving of tobacco products to Minnesotans younger than 21. Currently, Minnesotans can buy and use tobacco products beginning at age 18.

Current law includes petty misdemeanor charges for underage tobacco users. The proposal would eliminate those charges and set petty misdemeanor charges on the first offense for those who furnish tobacco to someone below 21.

The bill's author, Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, said Edina was among 23 cities and counties around the state have passed a similar ordinance in an effort to “block big tobacco’s pipelines into our schools." She encouraged committee members to boost the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 statewide.

Doctors, teachers, students, local officials and tobacco industry spokespeople stood to support the proposal and while small retailers raised questions about how it would be rolled out, they didn't oppose it.

“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to this epidemic,” Danette Seboe, principal of Duluth East High School said. “We’re doing our part, but we need the state to do more."

Seboe and other school officials along with high school students said devices used to vape were becoming easier to smuggle into schools as they have e-cigarette pens that look like flash drives or highlighters. Those designs can be harder for teachers to spot and confiscate, Seboe said.

Addiction is taking root in students as 18-year-olds buy tobacco products and share them with younger friends, said Pat McKone, Director of Tobacco Control and Advocacy at the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.

“We can’t play whack-a-mole with the tobacco industry anymore,” McKone said.

The bill was approved on a voice vote and moves now to the House Committee on Commerce.

Members of the committee on Tuesday also advanced legislation that would ban the use of electronic cigarettes in indoor public spaces as part of the Clean Indoor Air Act.

Supporters said the measure was key to cutting down on the use of vaping in the state while opponents said the change could force those using e-cigarettes as an "off-ramp" from traditional cigarettes to use the products in designated outdoor areas with smokers.

They also advanced a proposal to continue smoking cessation services under the Department of Health beginning in 2020. The state's Quitline Network services, which currently offer support in quitting smoking, are set to lapse next year.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

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