Roseville raises age to buy tobacco to 21, is 11th MN city to do so

courtesy of Chris Turner, Association of Nonsmokers-MN • Supporters of Tobacco 21, a campaign that aims to increase the purchase age for tobacco products from 18 to 21, showed up in force at Roseville City Hall June 18 to press the Roseville City Council to increase the age. The council did so with a unanimous vote, and come mid-July those who wish to purchase tobacco products in Roseville will need to be 21 years old to do so.

With a unanimous June 18 city council vote, Roseville became the 11th Minnesota city to up the age at which people can buy tobacco products to 21.

The city code amendment was met with a round of applause from a packed council chambers.

Roseville joins cities like Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina and Richfield, as well as neighbors Falcon Heights and Shoreview, in making the change, which is intended to make it harder for teens to get a hold of things such as cigarettes and vapes.

Council members Tammy McGehee and Bob Willmus had brought up raising the age in prior years, with the issue gaining traction when Willmus again mentioned it as a priority in November, based on anecdotes from his children, students at Roseville Area High School, about their peers’ tobacco use.

“Seeing firsthand the e-cigarette and vaping aspect of this and the stories that come home and the videos that come home,” Willmus said. “That really started to hit home.”


Increasing youth tobacco use

Half the Minnesota cities that have raised the tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21 have done so this year, galvanized by a Minnesota Department of Health tobacco use study released in March that campaigners for raising the age have touted as a call to action. The campaign itself is called Tobacco 21, or T21.

According to MDH, as of 2017, for the first time since 2000 state high-schoolers reported an increase in tobacco use, a change driven by the popularity of e-cigarettes. Last year, 26 percent of high school students said they’d used tobacco in the past 30 days, a 7 percent increase from 2014.

Introducing Roseville’s Tobacco 21 ordinance at the June 18 meeting, Assistant City Manager Rebecca Olson touched on that study as well as other findings from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which found that 95 percent of current adult smokers started smoking before they were 21.

Additionally, 59 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds said in the same study they had been asked to buy cigarettes for someone younger.


Aimed at kids?

Council members had little to say prior to the public hearing on increasing the tobacco purchase age. Though they stressed a desire to hear from people on both sides of the issue, the hearing played out in lopsided fashion as no one spoke against the change.

The council chambers were packed with Tobacco 21 supporters in bright green shirts, and a number of youth, some as young as 10, spoke in favor of the ordinance amendment.

Gracie Jackson, who said she was going into her senior year at Roseville Area High School, said she knows a number of 15- and 16-year-olds who use their older friends to buy tobacco and that there’s a designated bathroom at the school where kids go to vape.

“We have been told that tobacco products are bad for us but these new products [like e-cigarettes] are seen differently,” she said, pointing out it’s a “status thing to vape.”

Jackson brought props as well — a popular Juul e-cigarette, which looks like a USB jump drive and can charge off a computer, as well as a sweatshirt with concealed hoses for secret vape use — items seemingly designed to fool teachers.

Anna, who said she’s 10, talked about her uncle who smokes and often misses out on special family times, while another young man said he couldn’t imagine someone his father’s age choosing to smoke a strawberry-kiwi flavored cigar, pointing out it must be targeted at kids.


A chance to save lives

Adults joined in the chorus in favor of the ordinance, with a mother, Roseville resident Alexandra Ecklund, discussing how she started smoking at 12 and how in pictures from her young adult life “tobacco was always there.”

“I don’t really want the same for my child or my community” she said.

A doctor described the health tolls smoking can have on people as well as the costs — he said the illness and death is tragic and also expensive — while Roseville resident Joan Bulfur, a public health professional, said cities are the grassroots that can effect change at the state level.

“If you recall, the Clean Indoor Air Act started in Moose Lake seven years before the state actually passed a state-wide policy about [indoor] smoking,” she said. “I believe it will be the same way here with Tobacco 21 — the cities will have to do it before the state acts.”

Bulfur also reminded council members of the possible stakes of upping the age. “I don’t think you get, as a city council, the opportunity to save lives every week ... but tonight you do.”


Business concerns

Bulfur also told the council that concerns over young peoples’ health should trump any potential issues created by the change for local tobacco sellers.

She cited a stat that also appeared in Olson’s introduction of the ordinance. Per an American Journal of Public Health study, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds make up just 2 to 4 percent of tobacco buyers.

Olson explained that Roseville reached out to it’s 28-or-so licensed tobacco sellers in order to get them up to speed on the potential ordinance change and convened a May meeting on the issue, though only one retailer showed up. Another retailer emailed the city with his concerns, worrying the age change would hurt his business and be complicated to enforce.

Olson explained that with the ordinance amendment the penalties for selling tobacco products to someone younger than 21 were updated, with escalating fines and the loss of a tobacco seller’s license after a fourth violation.

She also pointed out that the city’s ordinance is written to target sellers; though state law still authorizes the city to penalize underage possession, such penalties are not outlined in the city code and youth tobacco users can be penalized with discretion.

Speaking during the public hearing, Roseville resident Bethlehem Yewhalawork said she was pleased the ordinance doesn’t include penalties for underage possession, since many tobacco products are marketed towards minorities.

“I don’t want this ordinance to be used as a way to target young people of color,” she said. “The point of it is to stop retailers illegally selling tobacco to kids.”


Council: more 

action is needed

In brief comments, council members explained why they supported upping the age. Beyond Willmus’s eye-opening experience of hearing about tobacco use at the city’s high school, McGehee said her life had been affected by tobacco — her mother died of smoking-related throat cancer and she smoked from ages 12-21.

She added she was heartened to see so many young people turn out in support of the ordinance amendment.

Council member Jason Etten, who is choir director at Irondale High School in New Brighton, confirmed that e-cigarette use is rampant in schools.

“The culture now has it happening in classrooms, so it’s clearly something we need to make less possible,” he said, noting that the city’s move won’t end teen tobacco use, but it’s a tool to reduce access to tobacco products.

Council member Lisa Laliberte, who’d also heard about high school tobacco use from her son, a recent grad, echoed the council’s support for upping the age. “I hope it will save a couple lives here and there.”

She also pumped the brakes, pointing out that 10 cities border Roseville and only three — Minneapolis, Falcon Heights and Shoreview — have also upped the tobacco purchase age. She called on the Legislature, where in both the House and the Senate there were bills to raise the tobacco purchase age this session that did not pass, to take action.

Mayor Dan Roe was a bit more bullish on the affect the ordinance could have, pointing out the city is a regional draw as a shopping destination, “so what we do here in terms of regulation of tobacco purchasing does have a larger impact than just in Roseville.”

He said e-cigarettes need more regulation in general, at the state and federal level, and put the onus on the communities that surround the city to follow Roseville’s lead. “Other cities that are neighbors to us need to get their act together, too.”

City Manager Pat Trudgeon said the age change will take effect 30 days after the meeting, in mid-July.


– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813

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