Flavored-tobacco ban should be widened beyond Twin Cities

Published 10:18 am Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by The Associated Press

Minneapolis and St. Paul often disagree. But when it comes to flavored tobacco, the two cities have adopted a united front that should put temptingly flavored tobacco out of easy reach for teens.

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On Jan. 1, Minneapolis became the first city in the state to ban the sale of flavored tobacco in convenience stores. St. Paul has followed suit, with its ban due to take effect in April. Those efforts are needed and should be widened beyond the Twin Cities.

Minnesota has had remarkable success in curbing cigarette smoking by teens. A 2014 state survey showed smoking among teens had plummeted to 10.3 percent. However, the survey also showed that tobacco use patterns among young people were shifting. Overall tobacco use stood at 19 percent as teens shifted to cigar products and smokeless tobacco.

The state survey did not ask specifically about flavored products, but the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey did, and it revealed some disturbing statistics about the rise in popularity of flavored tobacco products among young people.

It found that 7 out of 10 students who use tobacco are drawn to heavily flavored products because they mask the harsh taste. In releasing the survey, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “flavored tobacco products are enticing a new generation of America’s youth into nicotine addiction, condemning many of them to tobacco-related disease and early death.”

This rising trend is one to which many adults may be completely oblivious. Since 2009, the tobacco industry has been banned from selling fruity or candy-flavored cigarettes in the U.S. The law did not restrict flavorings of other tobacco products, though, and the availability of cheap, sweet small cigars and other tobacco products has exploded in the U.S., often carrying colors associated with candy and flavors such as watermelon, cola, pineapple and even “pinkberry.”

Before the ban went into effect, Minneapolis had more than 300 outlets authorized to sell such products. That figure is now down to fewer than two dozen.

Both cities also have moved to make little cigars and cigarillos — which can sell for less than a buck a package — more costly. St. Paul’s ordinance will require retailers to charge at least $2.60 per cigar for packages containing three or more cigars, or $10.40 for a package of four.

Other cities that want to prevent their young people from picking up a lifelong addiction should strongly consider similar measures.

An even better move would be to consider raising to 21 the legal age for tobacco purchase. New York City and Cleveland have already done so, and Boston will follow suit next month. That age limit will include e-cigarettes, an increasingly popular product among teens. This month, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of tobacco products to those under 21.

Studies show that the more available tobacco is, the more likely kids are to try it. Conversely, few who wait until 21 ever pick up the habit. Limiting the sale of flavored tobacco is a good start. Raising the age for purchasing tobacco products would be even better.