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March 14, 2018

Lawmakers in Minnesota are considering a proposal to increase the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 years old to 21 years old. The bill would also increase the age for purchasing tobacco harm reduction (THR) products, such as smokeless tobacco or snus, e-cigarettes, and vaping devices. The bill would prohibit tobacco use in charter schools. (Under current Minnesota law, tobacco use is already banned in public schools.)


The proposals under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature would greatly restrict the individual freedom of adults in the North Star State. At the age of 18, individuals can be drafted, sent to war, tried as adults in court, vote, own property, and be held liable in contractual loans, such as student loans. Governments should not impede on the individual rights of 18-year-old adults to purchase certain products while holding them to other adult standards.


Additionally, there is scant evidence increasing the age to purchase tobacco to 21 will curb smoking. In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported 58 percent of high school seniors had used alcohol within a year of being asked by the NIDA researchers, and 35 percent reported having used marijuana. The consumption of alcohol or marijuana is illegal for persons under the age of 21 in all 50 states, and yet age restrictions did not halt their consumption.


Further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted 90 percent of tobacco users start smoking before age 18. Individuals under 18 rely on “social sources,” including siblings, friends, parents, and strangers. According to data by the U.S. Drug and Food Administration, “86% of 15 to 17 year olds obtained cigarettes” through these alternative social sources. Age restrictions cannot address these sources.


Perhaps the most troubling issue with the proposal is that it treats THR products as though they are tobacco cigarettes. This is not only improper, it’s also dangerous. Increasing evidence shows THR products offer are safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes and provide important public health benefits.


For example, a 2009 BioMed Central study analysis of “the relative risk of cancer among smokeless tobacco users, compared with non-users of tobacco,” found “very little evidence” of a greater risk of cancer by smokeless tobacco users. Brad Rodu, a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, has researched the health effects of smokeless tobacco products for more than 20 years. According to his research, smokeless tobacco is “at least 98 percent safer than smoking, even though most Americans are misinformed about the differences in risk.”


A growing body of research confirms the tobacco harm reduction e-cigarettes and vaping devices provide. In 2017, NHS Health Scotland found “vaping e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoking.” A 2016 report by the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians indicated that health hazards from e-cigarettes were “unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.” In 2015, Public Health England stated “the current best estimate [shows] using e-cigarettes is around 95% safer than smoking.”

In January 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that e-cigarette use resulted in “reduced short-term adverse health outcomes in several organs.” Most recently, in February 2018, the American Cancer Society noted that the “currently available evidence, using current generation e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoking cigarettes.” 


There is also evidence that the use of THR products could help solve state budget woes. J. Scott Moody, chief executive officer and chief economist at State Budget Solutions, examined the economic impact of e-cigarette use on Medicaid costs. Moody concluded Medicaid savings could have amounted to $48 billion in 2012 if e-cigarettes had been adopted in place of combustible cigarettes by Medicaid recipients currently consuming tobacco products.


Lawmakers in Minnesota should avoid proposals that would limit the ability of 18-year-old adults to make choices. Instead, lawmakers ought to focus on improving the health and economic well-being of all Minnesotans by allowing 18-year-olds the ability to use THR products if they so choose.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute or Tobacco Harm Reduction 101.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Link Majority of Vaping-Related Hospitalizations to THC: Welcome
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