MANKATO — Anti-tobacco advocates achieved what they’ve long sought when President Donald Trump raised the federal sales age for tobacco products from 18 to 21 in December.
The timing and lack of notification was a surprise, though, prompting confusion about what it meant for states and cities where the age limit remains at 18.
Education campaigns have since sought to make clear tobacco 21 is now the law of the land, while calling for cities and states to adopt laws aligning with the change.
Mankato, North Mankato, St. Peter and a host of other Minnesota cities proactively passed tobacco 21 laws in recent years. Although 19 states did likewise before the federal decision, Minnesota hasn’t.
Laura Smith, ClearWay Minnesota’s senior public affairs manager, said retailers should still be complying with the federal law until Minnesota passes its own.
“There’s really no reason why retailers should wait,” she said. “We hope that they’ll immediately start implementing.”
While she heard of at least one Twin Cities retailer not complying, most others seem to have heeded the change. Anecdotally, ClearWay heard national retailers including Shell and Kwik Trip and the tobacco corporation Altria instructed stores to enforce the new age limit.
Jim Anderson, owner of the Eagle Express convenience store in Eagle Lake, said he’s received little information from any authorities regarding the federal law change. He described the process as haphazard so far.
“Between the county and the city no one knows for sure, or they’re not telling us,” he said.
His store ceased tobacco sales to customers younger than 21 to be safe. He said that policy will continue, as he assumes he and other store owners don’t have a choice.
Aligned municipal and state laws could help clear up the confusion caused by the quickly passed law, said Pat McKone, senior director with the American Lung Association. It would also better ensure compliance and allow for more local enforcement, removing the possibility of a city needing to file a complaint to the FDA to enforce a local noncompliance issue — hardly an efficient way to settle such matters.
“The nature of Minnesota is local control, and it would be so much better that we have a state law and even another level of communities having their own ordinances,” McKone said.
Even the cities that haven’t already raised the age to 21 may have language in their ordinances essentially deferring to federal law. McKone said the lung association is encouraging cities to check their current ordinance language to see if laws on the books already cover this.
Confusion aside, raising the age to buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products was a victory for smoke-free proponents. Adolescence is the primary age for tobacco use to develop, so they see raising the age as an effective way to reduce those chances.
“Anything we can do to link arms and help to keep our youth as healthy and safe for as long as possible is never a bad thing,” said Kate Cox, who oversees anti-tobacco education campaigns in area schools through the Project 4 Teens group.
Along with connecting smokers younger than 18 who now can’t legally purchase tobacco products to ClearWay’s QuitPlan cessation program, advocates will continue to push for bans on flavored tobacco products. Flavored products are seen as particularly appealing to youth, and most young smokers report using them.
In stark contrast to the relatively light opposition tobacco giants put up against raising the age to 21, any broad push to ban flavored products is expected to draw heavy resistance. McKone said the opposition would likely look similar to when the industry flew in lobbyists and poured money into direct mail campaigns in Duluth before the city restricted flavored tobacco products in 2018.
If raising the age was tolerable for the tobacco industry, she said, a flavor ban appears to be the line they don’t want to be crossed.
“That’s a line. That’s a moat. There are alligators in there. It’s all of the above,” she said.