The Merits of Expanding Edina’s New Tobacco Law

The Edina City Council recently passed an ordinance that raises the minimum age of tobacco sales up to 21 years old, making it the first city in Minnesota to do so. This proposal has already gained traction with other Minnesota cities, and could eventually be considered statewide. Raising the tobacco sales age to 21 years old is a major step forward for public health, but some local business owners worry that this ordinance will push away business to other communities, while not failing to accomplish much in the way of reducing teen tobacco use; however, that is not the case.

Raising the minimum age of sale for tobacco products is a smart way to reduce underage tobacco use while avoiding a tax regressive increase. Regressive taxes fall more heavily on lower-income Minnesotans than those with more income. Critics of the tax argue that it punishes these lower-income individuals for their addiction, while not placing enough of the financial burden on tobacco producers. Public health advocates see raising the minimum age of sale as a good alternative because it restricts underage access to cigarettes in a less regressive way. According to a recent study regarding American attitudes about tobacco, 70% of respondents approved of raising the tobacco sales age, and this policy had the highest approval ratings among never-smokers, women, and African Americans.

The legal age of sale for tobacco has been 21 years old in Needham, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston) since 2005. Researchers performed a longitudinal study examining the tobacco and alcohol use rates of teens in Needham compared to 16 neighboring communities. The researchers found that smoking rates fell dramatically in Needham, particularly among 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at a faster rate than neighboring communities. Teen smoking rates fell from 13% to 7% in Needham, while neighboring communities saw drops from 15% to 12%. There was no impact on alcohol use, which suggests that intervention (raising the age of sale) was the driver of lower smoking rates.

The potential benefits of that decrease in smoking rates are profound. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), around 90% of smokers start smoking by age 18, and 36% of teens will become addicted to nicotine and have an increased likelihood of using tobacco throughout their lifetimes. In a town that has roughly 2,200 15 to 19-year-olds, according to the US Census, a drop from 13% to 7% in teen smoking could account for an increase of about 130 teens not smoking until adulthood, greatly reducing the chances lifelong tobacco use among Needham teens. This study, although not conclusive proof, is an encouraging indicator for Edina and other Minnesota cities interested in this measure.

If this law were implemented in the rest of the state, teen smoking could become nearly non-existent in Minnesota. The statewide teen smoking rate is 10.3%, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, and there are roughly 363,000 Minnesota teens aged 15-19, per the US Census. This means that roughly 37,000 Minnesota high-school aged teens smoke. If the statewide rate saw a similar reduction to that observed in Needham (about 46%), Minnesota’s teen smoking rate would drop to 4.7%, which accounts for 17,000 Minnesota high-school aged teens. This is a difference of 20,000 teens who would avoid tobacco use in high school. Assuming that a 2010 Penn State study is correct in estimating a pack of cigarettes costs Minnesotans $20.83 in medical costs and lost productivity, then Minnesota teens could save $416,600 by avoiding their first pack of cigarettes. Keeping those teens from becoming lifelong users of tobacco would save Minnesota billions of dollars, without factoring in the potential health costs of those exposed to secondhand smoke or the potential health costs of their future children’s tobacco use (as children with a parent that smokes are more likely to smoke than children with non-smoking parents).