Falcon Heights eyes upping the age to purchase tobacco products in city

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom said he wasn’t aware that cities could set the age at which people could buy tobacco products.

“Honest to God, I didn’t even know that was an option cities could do,” he said.

But they do, and five Minnesota cities — Bloomington, Edina, Plymouth, St. Louis Park and as of Feb. 5, North Mankato — already have, upping the minimum age needed to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.

Lindstrom said he heard about what other cities had done, did some research and brought the issue to City Administrator Sack Thongvanh. 

The Falcon Heights City Council discussed raising the city’s tobacco-buying age to 21 at its Feb. 7 workshop meeting. 

Though the council didn’t make a decision — Thongvanh said the city wants to talk to its three licensed tobacco sellers and there’s no date set for the next discussion on the topic — if it does change the age requirement, it would be the first city in the east metro to do so.


Why change the age?

“Tobacco is still a problem — a lot of people thought when we [banned indoor smoking in public places] we were done,” said Katie Engman, the program director of the Ramsey Tobacco Coalition, part of The Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota.

Engman is one of many pushing to raise the tobacco-purchasing age to 21, part of a campaign called T21, which has the aim of preventing teenagers from ever starting smoking or using tobacco products, by reducing their access to them.

“Essentially, it’s removing tobacco out of the high school,” Engman said of upping the age, explaining too that many underage teens, kids aged 15, 16 or 17, know an 18-year-old who could buy them tobacco, but they’re far less likely to know someone who’s old enough to drink who will do the same.

The age change has already happened at the state level, too, said Engman. In recent years, California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon all upped their ages for buying tobacco products to 21.

She said any age change at the state level in Minnesota is at least a few years off, but that doesn’t mean tobacco use isn’t a state-wide issue. 

Engman said tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Minnesota, and according to a BlueCross BlueShield study from last year, smoking was responsible for $3.19 billion in excess medical expenses in 2014.

“It’s a burden on all of us,” Engman said.


Arguments against

Engman attended the Falcon Heights workshop and said that some of the concerns that council members raised match arguments she’s heard elsewhere against changing the age.

Council members argued that at 18 years old, people can vote and join the military, so why should the city tell them they can’t buy cigarettes? 

Engman argued government puts other safe guards in place to protect public health. She also said that Hawaii was ready to exempt military bases from its age changes, but the military did not want the exemption.

The age change having adverse effects on business is another common concern, Engman said. However, she pointed out, research shows sales to 18- to 20-year-olds only make up 2 to 4 percent of all tobacco sales.

Engman said her aim isn’t to stick it to small retailers, but to undermine the tobacco industry.

“I always put it back on the industry,” she said. “There’s millions of dollars a day trying to get our kids hooked [on tobacco] and we need to do what we can to safeguard against their predatory practices.”

Nearly 300 cities in the country have raised their tobacco-buying age, and Engman said a show of force by Minnesota cities could affect state-wide change.

At the same time, though, Thongvanh said that council members wondered what kind of impact Falcon Heights can have, all 2.25 square miles of it, without collaboration from neighboring cities.

“How would it deter individuals from smoking?” Thongvanh asked. “Because you can go to Lauderdale [to buy], which is half a mile away.”


Neighbors’ discussions

Though Falcon Heights is the only area community to have an official discussion about raising its tobacco-buying age, a survey of other cities in the Roseville Review and Bulletin newspaper coverage areas showed neighboring communities might not be far behind.

In Roseville, City Manager Pat Trudgeon said that council member Bob Willmus was interested in having the council look at raising the age, and that while nothing is scheduled, “I expect it will be on a council agenda in he next couple of months.”

Little Canada City Administrator Joel Hanson said a report on the topic the city just received from the North Suburban Tobacco Compliance Project, also part of The Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota, may lead to age change discussions at an upcoming council workshop.

Raising the age was a part of the Lauderdale City Council’s recent goal-setting process, but no formal action has been taken on it, said City Administrator Heather Butkowski, and she said she wouldn’t expect anything on it this spring.

In Shoreview, which more than a year ago placed restrictions on flavored tobacco sales, City Manager Terry Schwerm said the city council had discussed the age change but was worried about effects on business if the change only happened at the local level. He said council members would be more supportive of a state-wide change.

Mounds View’s City Administrator Nyle Zikmund said an age change is on the city council’s radar but no discussions have been scheduled at either a workshop or a meeting, and Arden Hills City Administrator Dave Perrault said he was unaware of any council discussions on the topic. New Brighton officials could not be reached for comment.

‘It’s a priority’

With the ongoing discussion in Falcon Heights, Lindstrom said he thinks a majority of the city council will eventually decide on changing the city’s tobacco-purchasing age.

He said too that an age change at the state level would be ideal, “but having each city take action shows momentum for the issue.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul each recently took other action on preventing young people from using tobacco products, restricting the sale of menthol and flavored tobacco products to liquor stores and tobacco stores, where those younger than 18 aren’t allowed to enter. Maplewood recently increased the price on flavored cigars.

Lindstrom said upping the age to buy tobacco products would be another important move.

“I’m just convinced that if we pass this measure it’s going to be good for our young people now,” he said, “and it’s going to pay dividends decades into the future.”

“It’s a priority of mine and we’ll continue the conversation.”


– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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