WORTHINGTON - A movement is underway in Minnesota to raise the age in which people can purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

A coalition comprised of more than 60 organizations, including ClearWay Minnesota, has spent the past few years raising awareness, building momentum and encouraging cities and counties to raise the tobacco sale age to 21. Last week, Duluth became the 23rd Tobacco 21 (T21) city in the state; Edina was the first in May 2017. Three counties have also adopted policies to raise the tobacco sale age, including Pope, Ottertail and Beltrami.

In addition to grassroots efforts across the state, there are three bills in the Minnesota Legislature this session that pertain to tobacco addiction - including a possible statewide T21 law. The other two bills are aimed at strengthening Minnesota’s clean indoor air law and providing quit-smoking help for all Minnesotans.

Laura Smith, public affairs manager with ClearWay Minnesota, said raising the age in which people can purchase tobacco products will help to prevent youth tobacco use.

“Nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers start before age 21,” Smith said. “If we can prevent our young people - before they are 21 - from trying tobacco products, we can help disrupt addiction and work toward lowering smoking rates and tobacco use rates.”

A study conducted by the National Academy of Medicine on the impact of Tobacco 21 in other states with the law finds a 25 percent reduction in smoking initiation among 15- to 17-year olds.

“It’s not just about reducing tobacco rates among 18-20 year olds, but also we know that a lot of young smokers and users start by getting these products through their friends and people they play sports with,” Smith said. “If we can keep these out of our high schools and middle schools, where a lot of people know 18-year-olds but not 21-year-olds, we can make a big difference in terms of reducing youth tobacco use.”

Across the country, more than 425 cities and counties in 23 states have adopted Tobacco 21 laws, with California and Hawaii the first states to set the tobacco sale age at 21.

Smith said the momentum is growing in Minnesota for T21, and though it’s still early in the legislative session, the coalition “Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation,” is optimistic.

“We’re feeling pretty good about the support we’ve gained to date,” Smith said. “We have bipartisan support from all over the state.”

The call to raise the tobacco sale age to 21 in Minnesota comes at a time when smoking among high school students is actually on the decline. However, the popularity of e-cigarettes among teens is climbing rapidly, with 19.2 percent of high school students admitting to e-cigarette usage, according to Tobacco 21.

“The U.S. Surgeon General and FDA (Food & Drug Administration) commissioner and Minnesota Department of Health have raised a lot of alarm bells recently about youth nicotine addiction and the growing threat of e-cigarettes,” Smith said. “We know nicotine in any form can harm the adolescent brain. We think that’s helping grow some urgency for this issue and addressing it with bold and common sense policies like Tobacco 21.”

Smith said the goal is not only for the state to support T21, but for cities and counties to do so as well.

“We hope local leaders will step up and do what’s best for our kids and put kids before tobacco industry profits,” she added.

Luke Ewald, Tobacco Prevention Lead with Community Wellness Partners in Cottonwood, Jackson and Nobles counties, said current tobacco work in the three counties focuses on smoke-free housing, but that isn’t to say local cities and counties who are interested in pursuing T21 policies won’t be assisted.

“There is a lot of work that goes into T21,” Ewald said, noting that community engagement, as well as education of city and county leaders, is necessary to move the initiative forward locally.

“If a city or county wants help to work on T21, we would gratefully help them out,” said Ewald, who is planning an educational presentation on Tobacco 21 for both the Jackson and Cottonwood county boards of commissioners within the next couple of months.

“A lot of communities are waiting on the state to make it T21 - they’d rather have it be a state rule,” Ewald said.

As of yet, Nobles County has not had any discussions about creating a Tobacco 21 policy.